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Paleomagnetism: Earth’s magnetic polarity flip-flops about every 100,000 to 600,000 years.

The polarity is recorded by the orientation of magnetic crystals in specific kinds of rock, and researchers have established a timeline of normal and reversed periods of polarity.

While K-Ar dating requires destroying large samples to measure potassium and argon levels separately, Ar-Ar dating can analyze both at once with a single, smaller sample.

Uranium series dating: U-series dating includes a number of methods, each based on different uranium isotopes’ decay rates.

Measuring carbon-14 in bones or a piece of wood provides an accurate date, but only within a limited range.

Says Shea: “Beyond 40,000 years old, the sample is so small, and the contamination risk so great, that the margin of error is thousands of years.

Thermoluminescence: Silicate rocks, like quartz, are particularly good at trapping electrons.

Researchers who work with prehistoric tools made from flint — a hardened form of quartz — often use thermoluminescence (TL) to tell them not the age of the rock, but of the tool.

Over time, certain kinds of rocks and organic material, such as coral and teeth, are very good at trapping electrons from sunlight and cosmic rays pummeling Earth.Egyptologists, for example, created a relative chronology of pre-pharaonic Egypt based on increasing complexity in ceramics found at burial sites.Whenever possible, researchers use one or more absolute dating methods, which provide an age for the actual fossil or artifact.Biostratigraphy: One of the first and most basic scientific dating methods is also one of the easiest to understand.Layers of rock build one atop another — find a fossil or artifact in one layer, and you can reasonably assume it’s older than anything above it.

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