Then, in the twentieth century, carbon dating found the bones to be about 22,000 years old — even though much of Britain was encased in ice and seemingly uninhabitable for part of that time.When Higham eventually got the bones, his team came up with a more likely scenario: they were closer to 33,000 years old and one of the earliest examples of ceremonial burial in Western Europe.
Beside a slab of trilobites, in a quiet corner of Britain's Oxford University Museum of Natural History, lies a collection of ochre-tinted human bones known as the Red Lady of Paviland.
In 1823, palaeontologist William Buckland painstakingly removed the fossils from a cave in Wales, and discovered ivory rods, shell beads and other ornaments in the vicinity.
Collagen, the part of bone that contains the most carbon suitable for dating, sops up contaminants like a sponge, creating a false record.
If just 2% of the carbon atoms are contemporary, then a 44,000-year-old bone will return a carbon date of 33,000 years old, Higham calculates.
At university, he planned to study geography and glaciology, but switched to archaeology after excelling in an introductory course taught by his father that he had signed up for on a whim. “I got less and less interested in archaeology because it was so subjective and woolly.” The reasons for that woolliness were partly technical and partly historical, dating back to before the Highams' time.
Archaeology before carbon dating relied on two principles: older things are buried beneath younger things, and people with cultural ties make similar-looking objects, such as stone tools. In the early nineteenth century, the Danish historian Rasmus Nyerup wrote that most of early human history was “wrapped in a thick fog”.
“It is another sobering example of cocked-up dates,” says Higham, whose laboratory is leading a revolution in radiocarbon dating.
By developing techniques that strip ancient samples of impurities, he and his team have established more accurate ages for the remains from dozens of archaeological sites.
Tom didn't originally plan to follow his father's path.