This is one from my old blog and was originally published on 9/16/05. I am republishing it because it bears on some recently published research, which I will get around to blogging about after I have read the recently published article a few more times.
This is way cool!
The new technique, developed by researchers at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) and the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, determines the amount of carbon-14 in tooth enamel. Scientists can relate the extensive atmospheric record for carbon-14 to when the tooth was formed and calculate the age of the tooth, and its owner, to an accuracy of within about 1.6 years.
“Unlike most other tissue, dental enamel doesn’t turn over,” said Bruce Buchholz of LLNL’s Center for Accelerator Mass Spectrometry, where the enamel samples were analyzed. “Whatever carbon gets laid down in enamel during tooth formation stays there, so tooth enamel is a very good chronometer of the time of formation.
“We were surprised at how well it worked,” he said. “And if you look at multiple teeth formed at different times, you can get (the age range) even tighter.” Previous techniques, such as evaluating skeletal remains and tooth wear, are accurate only to within five to 10 years in adults, Buchholz said.
Here is how it works:
Carbon-14, or radiocarbon, is naturally produced by cosmic ray interactions with air and is present at low levels in the atmosphere and food. Atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons from 1955 to1963 produced a dramatic surge in the amount of radiocarbon in the atmosphere, Buchholz said.
“Even though the detonations were conducted at only a few locations, the elevated carbon-14 levels in the atmosphere rapidly equalized around the globe,” he said. Since atmospheric testing was banned in 1963, the levels have dropped substantially as the carbon-14 reacted with oxygen to form carbon dioxide, which was taken up by plants during photosynthesis and mixed with the oceans.
“Because we eat plants and animals that live off plants, the carbon-14 concentration in our bodies closely parallels that in the atmosphere at any one time,” he said.
Buchholz and his colleagues analyzed 33 teeth from 22 different people whose ages were known. The enamel separations were done at the Karolinska Institute, and sample preparation and accelerator mass spectrometry analysis was done at Lawrence Livermore.
The enamel dating technique doesn’t work for people born before 1943, because all of their teeth would have been formed before testing began in 1955.