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Further complications arise when the carbon in a sample has not taken a straightforward route from the atmosphere to the organism and thence to the measured sample.
Archaeologists have long used carbon-14 dating (also known as radiocarbon dating) to estimate the age of certain objects.
For radiocarbon dating to be possible, the material must once have been part of a living organism.
This means that things like stone, metal and pottery cannot usually be directly dated by this means unless there is some organic material embedded or left as a residue.
In general it is always better to date a properly identified single entity (such as a cereal grain or an identified bone) rather than a mixture of unidentified organic remains.
All animals in the food chain, including carnivores, get their carbon indirectly from plant material, even if it is by eating animals which themselves eat plants.
The net effect of this is that all living organisms have the same radiocarbon to stable carbon ratio as the atmosphere.
To determine year of death, the researchers used radiocarbon levels in soft tissues.
Unlike tooth enamel, soft tissues are constantly being made and remade during life.