Radiocarbon Dating and How Mystery-Mongers Appeal to the Significance-Junkie with Hyperbole and Lies

Juniperus phoenicea sample from Taybet Zaman, Jordan. Credit: Sturt Manning/Cornell University

One of the biggest purveyors of pseudoarchaeological nonsense, Ancient-Origins, recently plagiarized Science Daily, which ran a short article based on a study in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences).

The Ancient-Origins title was “Inaccuracies Found in Radiocarbon Dating Calibrations Could Change Historical Timelines.”

Screenshot of Ancient-Origins and their copy/paste of the Science Daily article

 

The Science Daily title was “Research illuminates inaccuracies in radiocarbon dating.”

Screenshot of the Science Daily article. Note AO changed the title but not the text that they copy/pasted.

The original article in PNAS was titled, “Fluctuating radiocarbon offsets observed in the southern Levant and implications for archaeological chronology debates.”

None of the titles were terribly wrong. Obviously, the original PNAS article was the more accurate, albeit complicated. The Science Daily title was an oversimplification, but accurate nonetheless. And then the Ancient-Origins title, while still accurate, plays right into the hands of those that will never read the original article. And who happens to be their primary audience: the significance-junkie. That person that can resist no urge to always tell you whatever they feel is the most significant thing about any aspect of their life: how expensive that new car is and how fast it can go; how many yards this player ran; what the most dangerous road in the city is; and so on.

It’s also telling that Ancient-Origins is willing to lift the Science-Daily article wholesale from the SD website, changing not a word other than the title. I’m sure Joanna Gillian and Ioannis Syrgios would say it’s “fair use” and that they’re simply aggregating the news, but I disagree. If it were simply a news feed on Facebook and a clipped paragraph, that would be one thing. But they routinely copy and paste entire articles produced by the hard work of other writers who actually took the time to research the topic and synthesize the information that it might be made accessible to the public. Sure, they give a quick note at the bottom of their copy/paste job that says where it originated from. But this is barely a nod for a company that is making money off of the gullibility of others. And they know this is the case. That’s why they change the titles to be more seductive–to bait their audience and potential audience into clicking.

Back to the radiocarbon issue. This is actually a good example of what Ancient-Origins and other mystery-mongers do to make money off of those who love a good mystery, are impressed by significance, or easily baited to click based on preconceived notions. This is because radiocarbon is often one of the boogymen of the fringe. For many, it’s the only type of dating method they’ve heard of. For most, it’s the bane of their pet “theory” about how the world works. They don’t like radiocarbon dates because they either show their ideas to be too old or too young.

The young-earth creationists claim the Earth is only 6000 years old and when you show them data that puts the Natufian culture at Jericho to around 12,500 to 9,500 BCE based on radiocarbon dates, they like to say it’s because radiocarbon isn’t reliable and that even scientists agree that’s why there are margins for error.

Then there are the people who like to go on and on about how Puma Punku was built in 15,000 BCE and “how did they possibly create such intricate stonework without lasers?”, and so on. Tell them that radiocarbon dating of the site puts it’s peak at around 800 CE but may have been built as early as 535 CE and they will claim that radiocarbon is just prone to error therefore it must be wrong.

Neither of these extremes on the archaeological fringe really understand archaeological dating methods in general, much less radiocarbon in specific. Many methods are used to date sites, with radiocarbon being but one tool in the kit. Thermoluminescence, electron spin resonance, dendrochronology, paleomagnetism, and amino acid dating are but a few of the methods used in addition to radiocarbon. For radiocarbon dating, the margins for error are typically small for recent dates and grow larger the further back in time the dates are attempted. An early date might produce a margin for error on the order of a few years or decades; but a date tens of thousands of years in the past might produce an error margin of hundreds of years.

So what is the new study really saying? Sturt Manning and his team found that, when using radiocarbon dating, there is an offset in time (the 14C ages) between plant material growing in the Levant (in particular Egypt, Israel, and Jordan) and plant material in the typical Northern Hemisphere. And they think this is because of the differences in growing seasons and climate in general.

While this offset is very small, at a range of about 19 to 24 years (+/- 5 years), the authors point out that it could have significant impact on some very hotly debated issues in Syro-Palestinian archaeology where “high-resolution” archaeological dating is important in the Levant.

In order to arrive at their conclusions, Manning and his team sampled hundreds of juniper timbers in historic structures in southern Jordan and compared the dendrochronology with the radiocarbon dates. Tree ring data established the calendar date range of the juniper trees in the samples to be between 1610 and 1940 CE. The 14C showed offsets of ~19 +/-5 yrs for dates between 1610 and 1940 CE. They estimate that Bronze Age dates between ~1200-700 BCE will have an offset of ~24 +/-5 yrs.

This is just for a portion of the Levant and it really only affects high-resolution results. And the study increases the accuracy and precision of radiocarbon more than it creates question about the validity. And the authors specifically said this offset applies to radiocarbon dates from plant material. Go back up and hover your mouse over the Ancient-Origins screenshot. The photo is of bone chips, not plant material. And this photo was in neither the Science Daily article nor the PNAS. Clearly Ancient-Origins is trying to muddy the waters for clicks.

So, as you can see, mystery-monger websites like Ancient-Origins (and others), are more interested in the almighty click than they are the quiet, boring truth.

Further Reading

Cornell University. (2018, June 5). Inaccuracies in radiocarbon dating. ScienceDaily. Retrieved June 10, 2018 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/06/180605112057.htm

Manning Sturt, et al (2018). Fluctuating radiocarbon offsets observed in the southern Levant and implications for archaeological chronology debates. PNAS, May 2018. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1719420115



About Carl Feagans 368 Articles
Professional archaeologist that currently works for the United States Forest Service at the Land Between the Lakes Recreation Area in Kentucky and Tennessee. I'm also a 12-year veteran of the U.S. Army and spent another 10 years doing adventure programming with at-risk teens before earning my master's degree at the University of Texas at Arlington.

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