In 1949, American chemist Willard Libby, who worked on the development of the atomic bomb, published the first set of radiocarbon dates.
His radiocarbon dating technique is the most important development in absolute dating in archaeology and remains the main tool for dating the past 50,000 years.
Absolute dating represents the absolute age of the sample before the present.
Historical documents and calendars can be used to find such absolute dates; however, when working in a site without such documents, it is hard for absolute dates to be determined.
After an organism dies, the radiocarbon decreases through a regular pattern of decay. The time taken for half of the atoms of a radioactive isotope to decay in Carbon-14’s case is about 5730 years.
Half-lives vary according to the isotope, for example, Uranium-238 has a half-life of 4500 million years where as Nitrogen-17 has a half-life of 4.173 seconds!
In fact, levels of Carbon-14 have varied in the atmosphere through time.
One good example would be the elevated levels of Carbon-14 in our atmosphere since WWII as a result of atomic bombs testing.
An extensive tree-ring sequence from the present to 6700 BC was developed in Arizona using California bristlecone pine (), some of which are 4900 years old, making them the oldest living things on earth.
Therefore, radiocarbon dates need to be calibrated with other dating techniques to ensure accuracy.
Plants are not the only organism that can process Carbon-14 from the air.
Plankton absorbs, Carbon-14 from the ocean much like terrestrial plants absorb Carbon-14 from the air.
Since plankton is the foundation of the marine food chain, Carbon-14 is spread throughout aquatic life.