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As samples get older, errors are magnified, and assumptions can render carbon dating all but useless.For example, variations in greenhouse effects and solar radiation change how much carbon-14 a living organism is exposed to, which drastically changes the “starting point” from which a radiocarbon dating test is based.Radiocarbon dating can’t tell the difference between wood that was cut and immediately used for the spear, and wood that was cut years before being re-used for that purpose.Nor can it tell if a much older spearhead was attached to a brand-new shaft.Contamination and repeatability are also factors that have to be considered with carbon dating.A tiny amount of carbon contamination will greatly skew test results, so sample preparation is critical.

That’s not unusual in science, so far as it goes, but the relationship between assumptions and interpretations must be kept in mind. At worst, it can make carbon dating circular and self-confirming, though there are other means of dating that can reduce this risk.If the spear head is dated using animal bones nearby, the accuracy of the results is entirely dependent on the assumed link between the spear head and the animal.This is perhaps the greatest point of potential error, as assumptions about dating can lead to circular reasoning, or choosing confirming results, rather than accepting a “wrong” date.Most archaeological items can’t be directly carbon dated, so their dating is based on testing done on nearby objects or materials.This makes the results subject to the researchers’ assumptions about those objects.

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In short, carbon dating is as useful as any other technique, so long as it’s done properly and the results are objectively interpreted.

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