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Danielle Mc Leod-Henning is a program manager and physical scientist at NIJ. Our understanding of the shape and pattern of the history of life depends on the accuracy of fossils and dating methods.
The researchers wanted to find out if they could identify a person's year of birth or year of death using precise measurements of carbon-14 levels in different post-mortem tissues.
The spike in atmospheric carbon-14 levels during the 1950s and early 1960s makes this approach possible, but it also means it will have a limited period of utility because the amount of carbon-14 in the atmosphere is slowly returning to its natural level.
Barring any future nuclear detonations, this method should continue to be useful for year-of-birth determinations for people born during the next 10 or 20 years.
The generally poor post-mortem preservation of soft tissues would be a limiting factor to this approach.
However, the researchers suggested that soft tissue radiocarbon content would be transferred to, and preserved in, the pupal cases of insects whose larvae feed on these tissues.
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In recent years, forensic scientists have started to apply carbon-14 dating to cases in which law enforcement agencies hope to find out the age of a skeleton or other unidentified human remains.