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This diagram shows a selection of rock layers, or stratigraphic columns, from the Koobi Fora geologic formation on the eastern shore of Lake Turkana in Kenya. This area is a ridge of sedimentary rock where researchers have found more than 10, fossils, both human and other hominins, since

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While true, fossils are buried with plenty of clues that allow us to reconstruct their history. Inin Ethiopia's Afar region, our research team discovered a rare fossil jawbone belonging to our genus, Homo. To solve the mystery of when this human ancestor lived on Earth, we looked to nearby volcanic ash layers for answers. Working Fossil dating technology this part of Ethiopia is quite the adventure. It is a region where 90 degrees Fahrenheit seems cool, dust is a given, water is not, and a normal daily commute includes racing ostriches and braking for camels as we forge paths through the desert. But, this barren and hostile landscape is one of the most important locations in the world for studying when and how early humans began walking upright, using tools and adapting to their changing environments.

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How do scientists date fossils?

Visiting the Halls of Gems and Minerals? All visitors are required to a virtual line once onsite.

Part of Hall of Human Origins. Fossils arranged chronologically, for instance, can often suggest evolutionary relationships among species.

And fossils of the same age demonstrate the distributions of ancient plants and animals around the world. Fortunately, paleontologists today have a of techniques they can use to answer the question, "How old is it? One way of dating fossils relies on their relative positions in the ground.

Dating fossils – how are fossils dated?

When paleontologists dig deeper in sedimentary rock they are, in effect, looking back in time. As sediments Fossil dating technology by wind and water accumulate, they bury older layers—so the bottom layers in a geological sequence are usually the oldest and the top layers the youngest. Paleontologists can thus put fossils in chronological order without knowing the actual age of each specimen. When fossils are buried one on top of another, it is easy to arrange them in chronological order.

But the same sedimentary layers can often be traced over wide areas, so even fossils from sites far apart can be arranged in a relative chronology.

Today, scientists use a variety of techniques to date rocks and fossils precisely. Most often, they measure the amounts of particular radioactive elements—often radiocarbon or potassium—present to determine when a rock was formed, or when an animal or plant died.

Some techniques work best with materials millions or even billions of years old. Others only work for much younger materials. And each method only works for certain materials, ranging from volcanic rock to charcoal to bone. Fossil dating technology plants and animals absorb carbon from the atmosphere, including carbon—a radioactive form of the element produced when cosmic rays from the sun interact with nitrogen in the upper atmosphere. But when organisms die, they no longer take in any carbon, and the carbon in their bodies begins to decay at a known rate.

Scientists use particle accelerators to measure the amount of carbon in biological materials to determine when that organism died.

Radiocarbon dating

The cliff face at the Gran Dolina, a site in the Sierra de Atapuerca in northern Spain, is over 18 meters 59 feet tall and encompasses 11 distinct layers formed over more than one million years. Here scientists are working in layer TD 6, where they found hominid fossils overyears old—some of the earliest Europeans.

Gray volcanic tuffs—produced when layers of hot ash are laid down after volcanic eruptions—are dateable and can help date fossils found in adjacent layers. As ash layers cool, radioactive potassium contained within begins to break down into the rare gas argon at a known rate.

How do scientists figure out how old things are?

By comparing the amounts of stable potassium and argon, paleontologists can estimate how much time has passed since the volcanic tuff was formed. Become a Member ». Figuring out the age of fossils, or dating them, is key to understanding them. Close What are you looking for?