He concluded that they belonged to a Roman-era witch or prostitute.“He did a good job of excavating, but he interpreted it totally wrong,” says Tom Higham, a 46-year-old archaeological scientist at the University of Oxford's Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit.So, at his father's urging, Tom applied for and completed a Ph D at the University of Waikato's Radiocarbon Dating Laboratory in Hamilton, then did a postdoc there.And when a faculty position became available at a better-funded lab at the University of Oxford in 2000, he moved back to his birth country.It might even explain why humans survived and Neanderthals did not.
His father had counselled that if he wanted a future in the field, Tom ought to join the push to make it a more rigorous science, emphasizing testable theory, experiment and statistics.
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”.