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Revamping radiocarbon dating

Archaeological scientist Tom Higham is working to better radiocarbon dating for samples dating back to when humans first arrive in Europe.

By developing techniques that strip ancient samples of impurities, he and his team have established more accurate ages for the remains from dozens of archaeological sites. In the process, Higham is rewriting European history for around 30,000–50,000 years ago — a time referred to as the Middle-to-Upper Palaeolithic transition — when the first modern-looking humans arrived from Africa and the last Neanderthals vanished. Higham thinks that better carbon dating will help to resolve debates about whether the two ever met, swapped ideas or even had sex. It might even explain why humans survived and Neanderthals did not.

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Story: Ewen Callaway, Nature | Photo: Mark Hardy/Studio-8

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