Radiocarbon breakthrough shifts history’s timeline

A wholesale recalculation of the way in which archeological artefacts are dated could shift the age of prehistoric samples and cataclysmic climate events by decades or even centuries.

Cave art of horses in the Chauvet Cave, France.

Data scientists in Yorkshire are among those behind a new model for evaluating the age of discoveries from the ancient world using radiocarbon techniques.

Their statistics, published last night as part of a new worldwide standard, have set experts speculating on whether landmark events in human and geological history might have been earlier than previously thought.

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Dr Tim Heaton, from Sheffield University, who was among the report’s lead authors, said the findings could also help scientists understand the effects of historic climate change events in the context of those of today.

Dr Tim Heaton, of Sheffield University

“We need to have a timescale as to what happened, when, and how fast things happened. The more we know about what the climate was like in the past, the more we can try and predict what the future might be, and try and mitigate climate change,” he said.

He said the new measurements had made it possible to calculate that melting ice sheets around 14,500 years ago had caused sea levels to rise by around a metre every decade – double the previous estimate and more than projected for the current century.

“We have been lucky for the last 11,500 years in that the climate has been very stable. The concern is that we’re reaching a tipping point through human activity that will push it into a much more scary place – and perhaps a return to things we’ve seen a long time in the past,” Dr Heaton said.

The new data was also likely to establish that one of the world’s oldest prehistoric rock art sites, the Chauvet cave in the Ardèche region of southeastern France, was around 36,000 years old – some 450 years older than previously thought, he added.

And it might finally pinpoint the collapse of the Minoan civilization which flourished on the Aegean Islands during the Bronze Age.

The race was wiped out by one of the biggest volcanic eruptions ever recorded, and a leaf on an olive branch excavated from the site is the most significant scientific clue to when it happened.

Radiocarbon dating using the new measurements was likely to place it at around 1600BC – significantly earlier than archeologists had believed, Dr Heaton said

Alex Bayliss, head of scientific dating at Historic England, said the new measurements had “internationally important implications” for understanding the world’s heritage.

“Accurate and high-precision radiocarbon dating underpins the public’s enjoyment of the historic environment and enables better preservation and protection,” he said.

Professor Paula Reimer, from Queen’s University Belfast, who headed the project, said the researched helped to “answer big questions about the environment and our place within it”, adding: “Radiocarbon dating has revolutionised the field of archaeology and environmental science. As we improve the calibration curve, we learn more about our history.”

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