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Scientists from China and the US have created a precise record of atmospheric radiocarbon for the last 54,000 years, from isotopes locked inside a pair of stalagmites.

They say their study helps refine and calibrate the atmospheric radiocarbon record and provides insights into the causes of variations in atmospheric radiocarbon over time.

According to Tom Higham, of the School of Archaeology at the University of Oxford, this work is an exciting and important contribution to radiocarbon data as it is “a very detailed and high coverage record”.“When do different species of animal disappear over the last 50,000 years? Stalagmites in a Chinese cave have given scientists all they need to reconstruct the historical record of atmospheric radiocarbon (carbon-14) back to the carbon dating limit of around 54,000 years ago.The radioactive carbon-14 isotope is absorbed from the atmosphere by living organisms and then starts to decay at a known rate once they die.Radiocarbon dating measures the residual levels of this isotope estimate the age of organic materials and it has transformed archaeology and climate science, and other research disciplines.

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Hai Cheng at Xi’an Jiaotong University, China, and colleagues in the US previously discovered that a stalagmite in Hulu Cave in China showed unusually low and stable amounts of dead carbon that allowed for accurate carbon-14 calibration between around 27,000 and 10,500 years ago.

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