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Before more precise absolute dating tools were possible, researchers used a variety of comparative approaches called relative dating.
These methods — some of which are still used today — provide only an approximate spot within a previously established sequence: Think of it as ordering rather than dating.
When it comes to determining the age of stuff scientists dig out of the ground, whether fossil or artifact, “there are good dates and bad dates and ugly dates,” says paleoanthropologist John Shea of Stony Brook University.
The good dates are confirmed using at least two different methods, ideally involving multiple independent labs for each method to cross-check results.
Researchers can first apply an absolute dating method to the layer.
They then use that absolute date to establish a relative age for fossils and artifacts in relation to that layer. Anything below the Taupo tephra is earlier than 232; anything above it is later.
Researchers who work with prehistoric tools made from flint — a hardened form of quartz — often use thermoluminescence (TL) to tell them not the age of the rock, but of the tool.Paleomagnetism is often used as a rough check of results from another dating method.Tephrochronology: Within hours or days of a volcanic eruption, tephra — fragments of rock and other material hurled into the atmosphere by the event — is deposited in a single layer with a unique geochemical fingerprint.Biostratigraphy: One of the first and most basic scientific dating methods is also one of the easiest to understand.Layers of rock build one atop another — find a fossil or artifact in one layer, and you can reasonably assume it’s older than anything above it.