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Various geologic, atmospheric and solar processes can influence atmospheric carbon-14 levels.
Since the 1960s, scientists have started accounting for the variations by calibrating the clock against the known ages of tree rings.
Archaeologists vehemently disagree over the effects changing climate and competition from recently arriving humans had on the Neanderthals' demise.
The more accurate carbon clock should yield better dates for any overlap of humans and Neanderthals, as well as for determining how climate changes influenced the extinction of Neanderthals.
Carbon from these sources is very low in C-14 because these sources are so old and have not been mixed with fresh carbon from the air.
The problem, says Bronk Ramsey, is that tree rings provide a direct record that only goes as far back as about 14,000 years.
The technique hinges on carbon-14, a radioactive isotope of the element that, unlike other more stable forms of carbon, decays away at a steady rate.
Organisms capture a certain amount of carbon-14 from the atmosphere when they are alive.
“If you have a better estimate of when the last Neanderthals lived to compare to climate records in Greenland or elsewhere, then you’ll have a better idea of whether the extinction was climate driven or competition with modern humans,” says Paula Reimer, a geochronologist at Queen’s University in Belfast, UK.
She will lead efforts to combine the Lake Suigetsu measurements with marine and cave records to come up with a new standard for carbon dating.
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The clock was initially calibrated by dating objects of known age such as Egyptian mummies and bread from Pompeii; work that won Willard Libby the 1960 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.