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Thermoluminescence: Silicate rocks, like quartz, are particularly good at trapping electrons.

Researchers who work with prehistoric tools made from flint — a hardened form of quartz — often use thermoluminescence (TL) to tell them not the age of the rock, but of the tool.

Both plants and animals exchange carbon with their environment until they die.

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Unlike observation-based relative dating, most absolute methods require some of the find to be destroyed by heat or other means.

This family of dating methods, some more than a century old, takes advantage of the environment’s natural radioactivity.

Before more precise absolute dating tools were possible, researchers used a variety of comparative approaches called relative dating.

These methods — some of which are still used today — provide only an approximate spot within a previously established sequence: Think of it as ordering rather than dating.

Certain unstable isotopes of trace radioactive elements in both organic and inorganic materials decay into stable isotopes. By measuring the proportion of different isotopes present, researchers can figure out how old the material is.