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Radioactive decay is a natural process and comes from the atomic nucleus becoming unstable and releasing bits and pieces.
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The method was developed by Willard Libby in the late 1940s and soon became a standard tool for archaeologists.Libby received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work in 1960.“If you have a better estimate of when the last Neanderthals lived to compare to climate records in Greenland or elsewhere, then you’ll have a better idea of whether the extinction was climate driven or competition with modern humans,” says Paula Reimer, a geochronologist at Queen’s University in Belfast, UK.She will lead efforts to combine the Lake Suigetsu measurements with marine and cave records to come up with a new standard for carbon dating.The radiocarbon dating method is based on the fact that radiocarbon is constantly being created in the atmosphere by the interaction of cosmic rays with atmospheric nitrogen.The resulting radiocarbon combines with atmospheric oxygen to form radioactive carbon dioxide, which is incorporated into plants by photosynthesis; animals then acquire in a sample from a dead plant or animal such as a piece of wood or a fragment of bone provides information that can be used to calculate when the animal or plant died.The clock was initially calibrated by dating objects of known age such as Egyptian mummies and bread from Pompeii; work that won Willard Libby the 1960 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

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Measurement of radiocarbon was originally done by beta-counting devices, which counted the amount of beta radiation emitted by decaying atoms in the sample and not just the few that happen to decay during the measurements; it can therefore be used with much smaller samples (as small as individual plant seeds), and gives results much more quickly.

Marine records, such as corals, have been used to push farther back in time, but these are less robust because levels of carbon-14 in the atmosphere and the ocean are not identical and tend shift with changes in ocean circulation.

Bronk Ramsey’s team aimed to fill this gap by using sediment from bed of Lake Suigetsu, west of Tokyo.

Archaeologists vehemently disagree over the effects changing climate and competition from recently arriving humans had on the Neanderthals' demise.

The more accurate carbon clock should yield better dates for any overlap of humans and Neanderthals, as well as for determining how climate changes influenced the extinction of Neanderthals.