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As explained below, the radiocarbon date tells us when the organism was alive (not when the material was used).This fact should always be remembered when using radiocarbon dates.Common materials for radiocarbon dating are: The radiocarbon formed in the upper atmosphere is mostly in the form of carbon dioxide. Because the carbon present in a plant comes from the atmosphere in this way, the radio of radiocarbon to stable carbon in the plant is virtually the same as that in the atmosphere.Plant eating animals (herbivores and omnivores) get their carbon by eating plants.Radiocarbon dating is especially good for determining the age of sites occupied within the last 26,000 years or so (but has the potential for sites over 50,000), can be used on carbon-based materials (organic or inorganic), and can be accurate to within ±30-50 years.Probably the most important factor to consider when using radiocarbon dating is if external factors, whether through artificial contamination, animal disturbance, or human negligence, contributed to any errors in the determinations.
However, as with any dating technique there are limits to the kinds of things that can be satisfactorily dated, levels of precision and accuracy, age range constraints, and different levels of susceptibility to contamination.First tested and calibrated with material found in 4,000-year-old Egyptian tombs, carbon-dating has been used on progressively older and older relics, and has become an extremely important tool for anthropologists, archaeologists, geologists, and other earth scientists. Carbon-14 dating is now believed to be accurate for finding the age of materials up to 70,000 years old, with a margin of error of about ten percent. Thus, as the radioactive carbon-14 in dead matter decays to the more plentiful isotope carbon-12, the proportion of C-14 to C-12 declines.Carbon-14 has a half-life of about 5,600 years, so measuring the proportion of C-14 that's still present in dead organic matter, and comparing it to the known proportion of C-14 in living matter, will indicate the age of the sample. Libby assumed the ratio of C-14 to C-12 was constant, but the enormous amount of old carbon (from coal, petroleum and other fossil fuels) unearthed since the Industrial Revolution has changed the ratio.