How Do Scientists Date Fossils?

via Smithsonian

“No fossil is buried with its birth certificate,” wrote the renowned science editor Henry Gee in his 2000 treatise, In Search of Deep Time. While true, fossils are buried with plenty of clues that allow us to reconstruct their history. An array of absolute dating techniques has made it possible to establish the timescale of Earth’s history, including the age and origin of life, the timing of mass extinctions and the record of human evolution.

In 2013, in Ethiopia’s Afar region, our research team discovered a rare fossil jawbone belonging to our genus, Homo. To solve the mystery of when this human ancestor lived on Earth, we looked to nearby volcanic ash layers for answers. Using a geologist’s magnifying glass, we can carefully scan the ash in search of tiny minerals that are smaller than a single sprinkle on a sugar cookie and that hold the key to determining the age of a fossil.

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