Overview of Dating

When paleoanthropologists refer to time in the past, it is done with either relative or chronometric dates.  Relative dates give the time of an event with reference to another event that is not worldwide in scale.   They tell us simply that one thing is older or younger than another.  They do not tell us when an event happened in years before the present.  For example, in comparing the cross-section of the series of geological strata illustrated below, level 4 is older than 5 because it is below it.  This does not tell us how many years ago these strata were laid down.  It only tells us how old each is relative to the others.  Also, we cannot assume that level 4 in one site is from the same time period as level 4 at a site in another location.

drawing of geological stata as an example of relative dating
         Relative dating by relating geological strata

In contrast, chronometric pronounce word dates place events in their chronological position with reference to a universal time scale such as a calendar.  All events given the same chronometric date will actually be contemporaneous pronounce word.  Chronometric dates are given in numbers of years since or before the beginning of some calendar system.  For instance, 3000 B.C. was 3000 years before the starting point in the Gregorian calendar, which is the one that the U.S. and most other nations use today.  Likewise, 2005 A.D. is 2005 years after the zero starting point.  The A.D. and B.C. following Gregorian calendar dates are overtly Christian referencesA.D. stands for anno domini ("the year of our Lord" in Latin--the once presumed birth date of Jesus) and B.C. stands for "before Christ."  Israel and some other nations substitute B.C.E. (before the Common Era) and C.E. (the Common Era).

Many different calendar systems have been created around the world.  They all have in common the fact that they have a starting point from which one can count forward and backward. That point can be in the past, the present, or the future.  Scientists who use chronometric dating methods usually prefer to count years from the present.  With this system, an event that occurred in 1000 B.C. would be written 2950 B.P. (or 2950 years "before the present").  By convention, 1950 A.D. is considered the present.  That is because 1950 was the year that the first universal chronometric dating method, radiocarbon dating, became readily available for use.

Chronometric dates are just close approximations of the true age of a fossil or geological deposit.  This is due to the finite limits of the dating techniques and the materials being dated.  Most chronometric dates are given with a plus or minus factor.  For instance, 340 B.P 40.  This usually means that there is a 2/3 probability that the actual date of the event was within the range of 300-380 B.P.  The 2/3 probability is what statisticians refer to as one standard deviation.  At a higher probability, the plus or minus factor will be larger.  The fact that chronometric dates are only approximations of the actual age does not mean that they should be distrusted.  To the contrary, modern scientific techniques for chronometrically dating samples are highly reliable.

Whenever possible, paleoanthropologists obtain many samples from an ancient site to be tested with a variety of dating techniques.  In this way, the chronological placement of a fossil can be more dependable.  A date for an object, such as a human bone, is also more dependable when the bone itself is dated rather than something else physically associated with it in the same geological strata.


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Copyright 1998-2012 by Dennis O'Neil. All rights reserved.
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