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If 1% of the carbon in a 50,000 year old sample is from a modern contaminant, the sample will be dated to around 40,000 years.
Because of this, radiocarbon chemists are continually developing new methods to more effectively clean materials.
The second difficulty arises from the extremely low abundance of C, making it incredibly difficult to measure and extremely sensitive to contamination.
In the early years of radiocarbon dating a product’s decay was measured, but this required huge samples (e.g. Many labs now use an Accelerator Mass Spectrometer (AMS), a machine that can detect and measure the presence of different isotopes, to count the individual C atoms in a sample.
These new techniques can have a dramatic effect on chronologies.
With the development of a new method of cleaning charcoal called ABOx-SC, Michael Bird helped to push back the date of arrival of the first humans in Australia by more than 10,000 years.
This is affected by solar activity and the earth’s magnetic field.
Radiocarbon dates are presented in two ways because of this complication.