Hope of Israel Ministries (Ecclesia of YEHOVAH):

Radiocarbon Dating: Tool or Magic Wand?

Robert F. Helfinstine, P.E.

Archaeologists, anthropologists and others involved in researching things of the past have used the tools of radiocarbon (C14) dating as a supposedly accurate measurement of time in past history by which they could correlate activities from remote parts of the world. As the method has been used and the procedures improved with modern technology, the assumptions on which the method has been based have been brought into question. And if the assumptions are questionable, what about the results? How many individuals who submit samples for dating understand the limitations of the dating results? What have been some of the objectives in obtaining C14 dates?

In Literature of the American Indians, by Sanders and Peek, the authors use C14 dating of ancient Indian sites to “prove” that the Indian culture was older than that of the Egyptians, which was dated by a different method. Charles Ginenthal stated, “...radiocarbon dating is not employed to test theories, but to support them...radiocarbon always gives a scattered set of dates. The theorists then pick the ones they believe to be correct” (”The Extinction of the Mammoth,” The Velikovskian, special edition, 1997, p. 160). The ages of organic fossils, such as once living plant or animal remains, are often determined by the radiocarbon method.

A certain amount of carbon in the living plant or animal tissue is C14, usually obtained in the form of C14O2 from its environment. In a stable environment, the amount of C14 is in equilibrium; that is, the amount of decay equals the amount of new C14 taken in. When a plant or animal dies, there is no additional C14 taken into the tissue, and the C14 decreases as a function of time with a half-life of 5,700 years. By measuring the remaining C14/C12 ratio in a sample of wood, leather or ashes from an ancient campfire and compared with a “standard” ratio, a theoretical age of the sample is obtained. How accurate is that age?

The assumptions (Faure, Gunter, Principles of Isotope Geology, 1977, p. 307) on which the dating is made are: 1. It is independent of time for 70,000 years. 2. The value is independent of geologic location. 3. The percent of C14 is not species dependent. 4. The generation activity of C14 is a known constant. 5. There is no C14 contamination with modern C14. 6. There is no loss of C14 except by radioactive decay.

Radiocarbon is generated in the upper atmosphere primarily by cosmic ray bombardment of nitrogen (N14), converting it to C14. The McGraw-Hill Encyclopedia of Science and Technology states that the concentration of C14 in the Earth’s atmosphere, hydrosphere and biosphere is “relatively” uniform. It then goes on to explain how the relatively uniform condition is really a variable. A key factor in the C14 generation rate is the strength of the Earth’s magnetic field. According to the technical monograph, Origin and destiny of the Earth’s Magnetic Field (Barnes, Thomas G., “Origin and Destiny of the Earth’s Magnetic Field,” Technical Monograph number 4, Second Ed., 1983, p. 17), the magnetic field is decaying as a first order exponential with a half life of 1,400 years, a number much less than the 5,700 year half life of C14.

The consequence of this decay is that there is a corresponding exponential; increase of the generation rate of C14. Using present conditions as a reference will result in an increase in the apparent age of older samples. The cosmic ray flux is an unknown for past ages. The eleven-year sun-spot cycle also has a cyclic effect on the generation rate. Dilution of C14 in the atmosphere is caused by burning of hydrocarbon fuel or by release of C12 from CO2 sinks (Ginenthal, op cit., pp. 178-180) as the result of atmosphere and hydrosphere warming. The two main sinks for old carbon are the Arctic tundra, which absorbs CO2 from the atmosphere, and methane hydrate, a frozen mixture of methane and water found in the tundra and the ocean. Geological location is probably one of the biggest variables in the C14 process, yet it seems to be systematically ignored.

A few examples include a living tree growing next to an airport dated as being 10,000 years old (Huber, Bruno, “Recording Gaseous Exchange under Field Conditions,” The Physiology of Trees, K.V. Thinmann, ed., new York, 1958, p. 194), and living aquatic plants from Montezuma Well in Arizona, which shows apparent ages from 17,300 to 24,750 years (Ogden, J. Gordon III, “Radiocarbon and Pollen Evidence for a Sudden Change in Climate in the Great Lake Region 10,000 Years Ago,” Quaternary Paleoecology, New Haven, CT., 1967, p. 119). Why the erroneous numbers? It is assumed that the tree by the airport has obtained carbon from the exhaust fumes of aircraft which diluted the natural C14 in the atmosphere. The plants at Montezuma Well are evidently getting much of their carbon from the well water, carbon that has lost most of its C14 content by being aged in the ground for many years. This apparent aging is known as the Seuss effect. Plants, and the animals that feed on them, are influenced by the amount of “old carbon” in their immediate environment. Studies of soil and water conditions show that CO2 concentration in water under grasslands is approximately 1,000 times greater than CO2 concentrations in water in equilibrium with air.

Forest areas showed an increase of CO2 concentrations in both soil and water 100 times that of rain water (Encyclopedia Britannica, Macropedia, Vol. 7, p. 733). Therefore, both plants and animals from zones with high concentrations of old carbon will provide specimens that appear older by conventional C14 standards than they actually are. There are also assumptions of ages of certain rock formations. Yet, radiocarbon dating old wood samples extracted from the rock show dates radically different from the assumed age.

An example is a partly burned but unfossilized branch found in Cretaceous limestone in Texas that was dated as 12,800+/-200 years B.P. (Before Present) (Found by Wilbur Fields of Joplin, MO; radiocarbon dating: UCLA-2088, 10/23/78). Spruce wood, described as being in near normal condition, taken from the buried forest of Upper Michigan, was dated at 10,200 years B.P. Other fossil wood found along the north shore of Lake Superior shows similar dates. The relatively narrow dates for fossil wood is a problem for some researchers who have definite presuppositions about the time period of certain fossils. Wood found around the carcass of a baby mammoth, Dima, was dated between 9,000 and 10,000 years B.P. Samples of the carcass tissue were dated at 26,000 and 40,000 years B.P. (Guthrie, R. Dale, Frozen Fauna of the Mammoth Steppe, 1990, pp. 9-10). Fat and blood samples from the Berezovka mammoth were dated at 39,000 years B.P., but the plant and pollen remains found in its stomach were dated between 6,000 and 7,000 years B.P. (Ginenthal, op cit., p. 163). These examples tend to indicate that older samples can give a variety of dates, many of which may have little direct correlation to dates obtained by other methods. This brings to question the validity of many C14 dates found in the literature. When the material being dated has an unknown past history, how can the measured date be considered valid?

Contamination is a potential problem with old samples if the containers they are kept in are made of wood or wood products or are exposed to the air. Carbon 14 can be absorbed by the sample and made to appear younger than its normal C14 date. How much this effects the real date is questionable because of the other variables in the system. This brief summary of the C14 dating problem shows that the assumptions on which the process was originally established need to be reconsidered. It is not independent of time; it is dependent on geographical location; it is species dependent; the generation activity is changing, and it is subject to contamination.

There have been a number of “correction factors” proposed in attempts to normalize C14 dating. Tree ring dating has been used, but that process has its own limitations. The influence of the Earth’s magnetic field can be compensated to some extent, but the large differences due to geographical locations can only be guessed at. Carbon 14 is not the useful tool it was thought to be, but it is often used as a kind of magic wand in attempts to provide validity for establishing dates of ancient fossils. And because of the general commitment to using C14 dates, Charles Ginenthal commented, “I believe that because radiocarbon dating is the one, great backbone and support of the superstructure of the uniformitarian history of the past,...all of this evidence for a distorted ration of C14/C12,...will be denied” (Ginenthal, op cit., p. 184).

A word to the wise is said to be sufficient. Let’s hope that there are some wise individuals willing to acknowledge the problem. Old paradigms are hard to replace.


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