Archaeologists have long used carbon-14 dating (also known as radiocarbon dating) to estimate the age of certain objects.
Traditional radiocarbon dating is applied to organic remains between 500 and 50,000 years old and exploits the fact that trace amounts of radioactive carbon are found in the natural environment.
Over the past six decades, the amount of radiocarbon in people or their remains depends heavily on when they were born or, more precisely, when their tissues were formed.
Forensic anthropologists at The University of Arizona took advantage of this fact in a recent study funded by NIJ.
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.
They measured carbon-14 levels in various tissues from 36 humans whose birth and death dates were known.
The new method is based on the fact that over the past 60 years, environmental levels of radiocarbon have been significantly perturbed by mid-20th-century episodes of above-ground nuclear weapons testing.
Before the nuclear age, the amount of radiocarbon in the environment varied little in the span of a century.
In contrast, from 1955 to 1963, atmospheric radiocarbon levels almost doubled.
Since then they have been dropping back toward natural levels.
To determine year of birth, the researchers focused on tooth enamel.
Adult teeth are formed at known intervals during childhood.
The researchers found that if they assumed tooth enamel radiocarbon content to be determined by the atmospheric level at the time the tooth was formed, then they could deduce the year of birth.