Early geologists, in the s and s, noticed how fossils seemed to occur in sequences: The first work was done in England and France. Then, geologists began to build up the stratigraphic column, the familiar listing of divisions of geological time — Jurassic, Cretaceous, Tertiary, and so on. Each time unit was characterized by particular fossils. The scheme worked all round the world, without fail.
From the s onwards, geologists noted how fossils became more complex through time. The oldest rocks contained no fossils, then came simple sea creatures, then more complex ones like fishes, then came life on land, then reptiles, then mammals, and finally humans. Since , paleontologists, or fossil experts, have searched the world for fossils. In the past years they have not found any fossils that Darwin would not have expected.
Darwin and his contemporaries could never have imagined the improvements in resolution of stratigraphy that have come since , nor guessed what fossils were to be found in the southern continents, nor predicted the huge increase in the number of amateur and professional paleontologists worldwide.
All these labors have not led to a single unexpected finding such as a human fossil from the time of the dinosaurs, or a Jurassic dinosaur in the same rocks as Silurian trilobites. Paleontologists now apply sophisticated mathematical techniques to assess the relative quality of particular fossil successions, as well as the entire fossil record. These demonstrate that, of course, we do not know everything and clearly never will , but we know enough.
Today, innovative techniques provide further confirmation and understanding of the history of life. Biologists actually have at their disposal several independent ways of looking at the history of life - not only from the order of fossils in the rocks, but also through phylogenetic trees. Phylogenetic trees are the family trees of particular groups of plants or animals, showing how all the species relate to each other. Phylogenetic trees are drawn up mathematically, using lists of morphological external form or molecular gene sequence characters.
Modern phylogenetic trees have no input from stratigraphy, so they can be used in a broad way to make comparisons between tree shape and stratigraphy. The majority of test cases show good agreement, so the fossil record tells the same story as the molecules enclosed in living organisms. Dating in geology may be relative or absolute. Relative dating is done by observing fossils, as described above, and recording which fossil is younger, which is older.
Accuracy of Fossils and Dating Methods
The discovery of means for absolute dating in the early s was a huge advance. The methods are all based on radioactive decay:. The first radiometric dates, generated about , showed that the Earth was hundreds of millions, or billions, of years old. Since then, geologists have made many tens of thousands of radiometric age determinations, and they have refined the earlier estimates. Age estimates can be cross-tested by using different isotope pairs.
Results from different techniques, often measured in rival labs, continually confirm each other.
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Every few years, new geologic time scales are published, providing the latest dates for major time lines. Older dates may change by a few million years up and down, but younger dates are stable. For example, it has been known since the s that the famous Cretaceous-Tertiary boundary, the line marking the end of the dinosaurs, was 65 million years old. Repeated recalibrations and retests, using ever more sophisticated techniques and equipment, cannot shift that date. It is accurate to within a few thousand years. The fossil record is fundamental to an understanding of evolution.
Science and Evolution: Accuracy of Fossils and Dating Methods
Fossils document the order of appearance of groups and they tell us about some of the amazing plants and animals that died out long ago. 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 ; anything above it is later. Generally speaking, the more complex a poem or piece of pottery is, the more advanced it is and the later it falls in the chronology. Egyptologists, for example, created a relative chronology of pre-pharaonic Egypt based on increasing complexity in ceramics found at burial sites. Sometimes called carbon dating, this method works on organic material. Both plants and animals exchange carbon with their environment until they die. Afterward, the amount of the radioactive isotope carbon in their remains decreases.
Measuring carbon in bones or a piece of wood provides an accurate date, but only within a limited range. It would be like having a watch that told you day and night. Also called single crystal argon or argon-argon Ar-Ar dating, this method is a refinement of an older approach known as potassium-argon K-Ar dating, which is still sometimes used.
Both methods date rock instead of organic material. As potassium decays, it turns into argon. But unlike radiocarbon dating, the older the sample, the more accurate the dating — researchers typically use these methods on finds at least , years old. While K-Ar dating requires destroying large samples to measure potassium and argon levels separately, Ar-Ar dating can analyze both at once with a single, smaller sample. The uranium-thorium method is often helpful for dating finds in the 40, to ,year-old range, too old for radiocarbon but too young for K-Ar or Ar-Ar. Silicate rocks, like quartz, are particularly good at trapping electrons.
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. After shaping flint, toolmakers typically dropped the rocks into a fire. Archaeologists also frequently use TL to date ceramics, which are also exposed to high temperatures during manufacture.
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Similar to TL, optically stimulated luminescence measures when quartz crystals in certain kinds of rock last saw sunlight. That emitted light, the signal, can be used to calculate when the sample was last exposed to sunlight. ESR, which measures trapped electrons using magnetic fields, is related to magnetic resonance imaging, the medical technique that allows doctors to look for tumors or peek inside your creaking knee.
By Gemma Tarlach Wednesday, June 01, Whenever possible, researchers use one or more absolute dating methods, which provide an age for the actual fossil or artifact. Unlike observation-based relative dating, most absolute methods require some of the find to be destroyed by heat or other means. Certain unstable isotopes of trace radioactive elements in both organic and inorganic materials decay into stable isotopes.
This happens at known rates.
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