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A child mummy is found high in the Andes and the archaeologist says the child lived more than 2,000 years ago.How do scientists know how old an object or human remains are?It can be applied to most organic materials and spans dates from a few hundred years ago right back to about 50,000 years ago - about when modern humans were first entering Europe.Carbon is the building block of all organic molecules and is present in many other forms in the environment.Carbon-14 is produced in the upper atmosphere when cosmic rays bombard nitrogen atoms.

During the lifetime of an organism, the amount of c14 in the tissues remains at an equilibrium since the loss (through radioactive decay) is balanced by the gain (through uptake via photosynthesis or consumption of organically fixed carbon).In contrast, methane made from petroleum products had no measurable radioactivity.This discovery meant that there are three naturally occurring isotopes of carbon: Whereas carbon-12 and carbon-13 are stable isotopes, carbon-14 is unstable or radioactive.This means that half of the c14 has decayed by the time an organism has been dead for 5568 years, and half of the remainder has decayed by 11,136 years after death, etc.The diminishing levels via decay means that the effective limit for using c14 to estimate time is about 50,000 years. Subsequent work has shown that the half-life of radiocarbon is actually 5730 ± 40 years, a difference of 3% compared to the Libby half-life.

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