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Desmond Clark (1979) wrote that were it not for radiocarbon dating, "we would still be foundering in a sea of imprecisions sometime bred of inspired guesswork but more often of imaginative speculation" (Clark, 1979:7).
Writing of the European Upper Palaeolithic, Movius (1960) concluded that "time alone is the lens that can throw it into focus".
A commonly used radiometric dating technique relies on the breakdown of potassium (Ar in an igneous rock can tell us the amount of time that has passed since the rock crystallized.
If an igneous or other rock is metamorphosed, its radiometric clock is reset, and potassium-argon measurements can be used to tell the number of years that has passed since metamorphism.
Carbon-14 is a method used for young (less than 50,000 year old) sedimentary rocks.
This method relies on the uptake of a naturally occurring radioactive isotope of carbon, carbon-14 by all living things.
Oakley (1979) suggested its development meant an almost complete re-writing of the evolution and cultural emergence of the human species.
There are three carbon isotopes that occur as part of the Earth's natural processes; these are carbon-12, carbon-13 and carbon-14.
The unstable nature of carbon 14 (with a precise half-life that makes it easy to measure) means it is ideal as an absolute dating method.
Radioactive elements were incorporated into the Earth when the Solar System formed.
All rocks and minerals contain tiny amounts of these radioactive elements.