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“We know that it is older than Christendom,” he wrote, “but whether by a couple of years or a couple of centuries or even by more than a millennium, we can do no more than guess.” The fog began to lift in the middle of the twentieth century, when US chemist Willard Libby and his colleagues showed that all formerly living things bear a clock powered by radioactive carbon-14.

Organisms incorporate tiny amounts of this isotope as they grow, and they maintain a constant ratio between it and other, non-radioactive, carbon isotopes throughout their lives.

At university, he planned to study geography and glaciology, but switched to archaeology after excelling in an introductory course taught by his father that he had signed up for on a whim. “I got less and less interested in archaeology because it was so subjective and woolly.” The reasons for that woolliness were partly technical and partly historical, dating back to before the Highams' time.

Archaeology before carbon dating relied on two principles: older things are buried beneath younger things, and people with cultural ties make similar-looking objects, such as stone tools. In the early nineteenth century, the Danish historian Rasmus Nyerup wrote that most of early human history was “wrapped in a thick fog”.

After death, the carbon-14 decays with a half-life of about 5,730 years, and the dwindling ratio serves as a time stamp.

“I want to know the truth” is something he says a lot.

He concluded that they belonged to a Roman-era witch or prostitute.

“He did a good job of excavating, but he interpreted it totally wrong,” says Tom Higham, a 46-year-old archaeological scientist at the University of Oxford's Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit.

Then, in the twentieth century, carbon dating found the bones to be about 22,000 years old — even though much of Britain was encased in ice and seemingly uninhabitable for part of that time.

When Higham eventually got the bones, his team came up with a more likely scenario: they were closer to 33,000 years old and one of the earliest examples of ceremonial burial in Western Europe.

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