Carbon dating into the future
This week’s feedback is from Franky P of Canada, who has a question about instances of carbon dating giving negative (=future) ages. Andrew Lamb replies.
I checked out the Department of Earth Sciences at Brock University and noticed that they offer a radiocarbon dating service. One of their samples BGS-43 was dated 3000 YEARS IN THE FUTURE, more than once.
The website I found it at was http://www.brocku.ca/earthsciences/includes/c14Form.html. Do a <CTRL> - f and type in the sample code, BGS-43, then look on the farthest right column and you will find this information.
I found this very curious and thought you might as well.
Dear Mr P
Thank you for your email of 6 March, submitted via our website.
I found the entry for the BGS-43 wood sample you referred to in the table at Brock University. [No longer online, but see snapshot. Ed. April 2014] The BGS-43 entry records this sample as coming from a large bore hole in Oak Island, Canada. The entry includes the comment ‘The “Calculated Age” is ~ +3000 yrs into the future. Repeated sample and got the same results.’
Testing of atmospheric nuclear bombs in the 1950s and 60s dramatically increased levels of radiocarbon (carbon-14, 14C) in the atmosphere—see the graph below. Measurements have always shown fluctuations in the level of atmospheric radiocarbon, but since the peak in the mid 1960s, the level has been steadily decreasing overall. A carbon age of thousands of years in the future like the one you described could indicate that the wood in question was cut/separated from the tree in the 1960s, when atmospheric radiocarbon levels were at their highest. (There are other phenomena besides nuclear bombs that also affect carbon isotope levels—see later.)
Several examples of future carbon dates appear in some research done on silk cloth.1 In this case fake antique silks were easily distinguished from authentic antique silks by their negative carbon dating ages, ranging from 900 to 1,600 years into the future.
Isotope levels can be measured extremely accurately, much more accurately than when carbon-dating methods were first devised. However, this doesn’t mean that carbon-dating is any more reliable. Radioisotope dating relies on unprovable assumptions about the past, and unless we have reliable historical dates for objects, we cannot be certain that their calculated ages are accurate. The only reliable way to date anything is by the historical method—relying on trustworthy records such as the Bible. See Immeasurable Age.
Archaeologists will readily dismiss carbon-dating ages if they do not agree with the date they want or expect:
‘If a C-14 date supports our theories, we put it in the main text. If it does not entirely contradict them, we put it in a footnote. And if it is completely ‘out of date’, we just drop it.’2
For example Australian archaeologist Dr Josephine Flood rejected the 30,000 year carbon-dates for ‘Mungo Man’ because she believes, based on other dating methods such as electron spin resonance, that Mungo Man is 60,000 years old.3 Both methods can’t be right, but both can be wrong, and we know from the accurate history recorded in the Bible that in this case both are wrong.
There is evidence of changes in carbon isotope ratios from era to era, region to region*, species to species†, and even from one part of an individual organism to another part. For examples, see the section ‘Other factors affecting carbon dating’ from Chapter 4 ‘What about carbon dating?’ of The Creation Answers Book. I highly recommend getting a copy of this book. [* E.g. consider the green and red lines on the graph below. Volcanism also effects carbon ratios (see CAB p. 69), as does industrialisation, and these effects can be regional. † See CAB p. 67 re variation between plant types. And consider too that non air-breathing creatures, e.g. fish, will tend to ingest less 14C. Ed. June 2020]
Carbon-dating relies on knowing the ratio of carbon-14 to carbon-12 (normal non-radioactive carbon) in the atmosphere throughout history. But the carbon system is not always in equilibrium; there is not always a balance between the amount of new carbon-14 forming naturally in the atmosphere, and the amount of 14C leaving the atmosphere due to being absorbed by plants. As a Science article noted:
‘[T]he amount of 14C produced in the atmosphere varies with the sun’s solar activity and fluctuations in Earth’s magnetic field. This means that the radiocarbon clock can race ahead or seemingly stop for up to 5 centuries. As a result, raw radiocarbon dates sometimes diverge from real calendar years by hundreds or even thousands of years. Thus researchers must calibrate the clock to account for these fluctuations, and that can be a challenge.’4
Besides these regular changes, which secular scientists try to take into account, there was a unique event in earth’s history that also greatly upset the carbon balance, but which the scientific establishment refuses to take into account when calibrating the carbon-dating method. That event was the Flood.
There was massive worldwide volcanism during the Flood, with massive volumes of dust, CO2, and water vapour being ejected into the atmosphere. Volcanic CO2 tends not to contain 14C, just normal carbon. The ratio of 14C to 12C in the atmosphere would thus have become greatly diluted during the Flood, and would have remained low for many centuries, as the level gradually built up again towards equilibrium. Animals and plants in the immediate post-Flood centuries would have absorbed and ingested less 14C than modern (i.e. pre-nuclear bomb) era organisms. Hence artefacts from the first post-Flood millennium will generate ages older than they really are, due to starting with less 14C than would be expected based on the incorrect assumption that the ratio then was the same as in modern times. Carbon ‘dates’ older than 3000 years are likely to be grossly inflated.
The strength of the earth’s magnetic field has been steadily decreasing, meaning more high energy particles from space are reaching our atmosphere, resulting in more 14C being produced. (The particles hit gas molecules producing showers of secondary lower-energy particles, and a cascade of collisions ensues. Amongst the many different particles produced are neutrons, and some low-energy neutrons strike nitrogen atoms and convert them into carbon-14.) So even without atomic bomb testing, the atmospheric ratio of 14C to 12C may have been increasing, albeit very gradually. Note that the ‘natural level’ in the graph above is assumed. In fact the atmospheric carbon system may never have been in equilibrium. The blue line on that graph represents a mythical uniformitarian ideal that has not existed in the short period that records of atmospheric isotope levels have been kept. And yet the edifice of carbon dating basically relies on extrapolating this romanticized straight blue line 50,000 years into the past! This is not good science.
Carbon dating began in the late 1940s and some of the first things to be carbon dated were Egyptian artefacts, including the coffin of Pharaoh Djoser. The date of this pharaoh’s death was already considered to be accurately established, at 2750 BC. We know this date is incorrect because Egypt is a post-Flood civilization and this date precedes the Flood by several hundred years. Tests like these on ancient Egyptian artefacts formed the basis for the calibration of the carbon dating method. But scholars are now coming to the realisation that the traditionally accepted Egyptian chronology is greatly in error, and needs shortening by hundreds of years. A revolution in ancient chronology has been steadily building over the last decade, with a number of scholars publishing hard-to-refute evidence that traditional Egyptian chronologies are overextended by many hundreds of years.5 More and more archaeologists are beginning to accept that revision is inevitable. On the issue of an accurate chronology of ancient history, see Searching for Moses and In the days of Peleg.
Carbon dating actually tends to be the creationist’s friend because carbon-14 is found in many samples that are supposed to be millions of years old, when there should be no 14C left according to uniformitarian assumptions. For examples, see Dating Dilemma: Fossil wood in ‘ancient’ sandstone, Geological conflict, and Diamonds: a creationist’s best friend.
For those with the inclination, abundant evidence is available with which they can verify to themselves the unreliability of radiometric dating methods, including the carbon method.
Re-featured on homepage: 14 September 2023
- Turnbull, J., Sparks, R., and Prior, C., Testing the effectiveness of AMS radiocarbon pretreatment and preparation on archaeological textiles, Nuclear Instruments and Methods in Physics Research B 172: 469–472, 2000. Return to text.
- Brew, J.O., cited in T. Säve-Söderbergh and I. U. Olsson (Institute of Egyptology and Institute of Physics respectively, University of Uppsala, Sweden), ‘C-14 dating and Egyptian chronology’, in Radiocarbon Variations and Absolute Chronology, Proceedings of the Twelfth Nobel Symposium, Ingrid U. Olsson (editor), Almqvist & Wiksell, Stockholm, and John Wiley & Sons, Inc., New York, p. 35, 1970. Here is the quote in context:
C-14 dating was being discussed at a symposium on the prehistory of the Nile Valley. A famous American colleague, Professor Brew, briefly summarized a common attitude among archaeologists towards it, as follows:Return to text.
“If a C-14 date supports our theories, we put it in the main text. If it does not entirely contradict them, we put it in a foot-note. And if it is completely ‘out of date’, we just drop it.”Few archaeologists who have concerned themselves with absolute chronology are innocent of having sometimes applied this method, and many are still hesitant to accept C-14 dates without reservations.
- Christopher Bantick, Extending the dreamtime, West Australian, 10 June 2000. Return to text.
- Michael Balter, Radiocarbon dating’s final frontier, Science 313(5793):1560–1563, 15 September 2006. Return to text.
- For example David Rohl in his book Pharaohs and Kings. (The US version of his book is titled A Test of Time.) CMI published a review of this book in Journal of Creation 11(1):33–35. Another such call for drastic shortening of the Egyptian chronology came from Peter James, in his book Centuries of Darkness, Pimlico, London, 1992. In the introduction to this book the highly regarded Cambridge Professor Colin Renfrew wrote:
Another worthwhile resource on the need to drastically shorten Egyptian chronology is James Jordan, The Egyptian Problem, Biblical Chronology 6(1), January 1994.
‘The revolutionary suggestion is made here that the existing chronologies for that crucial phase in human history are in error by several centuries, and that, in consequence, history will have to be rewritten.’ (page xiv)
‘The authors of this book … show the frailty of the links by which the whole ramshackle chronological structure is held together. I feel that their critical analysis is right, and that a chronological revolution is on its way.’ (page xvi)
See also: Ian Taylor, Willard Libby and carbon dating Egyptian artifacts, Journal of Creation 17(3):58–59, 2003. Return to text.