Archaeologists use the exponential, radioactive decay of carbon 14 to estimate the death dates of organic material. The stable form of carbon is carbon 12 and the radioactive isotope carbon 14 decays over time into nitrogen 14 and other particles. Carbon is naturally in all living organisms and is replenished in the tissues by eating other organisms or by breathing air that contains carbon. At any particular time all living organisms have approximately the same ratio of carbon 12 to carbon 14 in their tissues. When an organism dies it ceases to replenish carbon in its tissues and the decay of carbon 14 to nitrogen 14 changes the ratio of carbon 12 to carbon Experts can compare the ratio of carbon 12 to carbon 14 in dead material to the ratio when the organism was alive to estimate the date of its death.
In this section we will explore the use of carbon dating to determine the age of fossil remains. Carbon is a key element in biologically important molecules. During the lifetime of an organism, carbon is brought into the cell from the environment in the form of either carbon dioxide or carbon-based food molecules such as glucose; then used to build biologically important molecules such as sugars, proteins, fats, and nucleic acids. These molecules are subsequently incorporated into the cells and tissues that make up living things. Therefore, organisms from a single-celled bacteria to the largest of the dinosaurs leave behind carbon-based remains. Carbon dating is based upon the decay of 14 C, a radioactive isotope of carbon with a relatively long half-life years. While 12 C is the most abundant carbon isotope, there is a close to constant ratio of 12 C to 14 C in the environment, and hence in the molecules, cells, and tissues of living organisms.
When we speak of the element Carbon, we most often refer to the most naturally abundant stable isotope 12 C. Although 12 C is definitely essential to life, its unstable sister isotope 14 C has become of extreme importance to the science world. Radiocarbon dating is the process of determining the age of a sample by examining the amount of 14 C remaining against its known half-life, 5, years.