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“What we need to do is extract the uranium and the lead out of the rocks,” explains Dr Pickering, “then we can measure the amount and the various isotopes of uranium and lead and then put all that back together and calculate the ages.” The uranium-lead dating of the underlying flowstone in 2010 provided an upper age limit of 2 million years.A lower age limit of 1.5 million years was deduced by the presence of particular species of animals at the site.Every so often, a curious thing happens to the Earth’s magnetic field.We don’t really know why it happens, or even when it is likely to happen next, but every several hundred thousand years or so, the Earth’s magnetic field reverses. We know this, because when rocks are formed, they are indelibly marked with the normal or reverse polarity of their birth time, or chron.Permission must be sought from the author to republish the article. uses cookies to improve performance by remembering your session ID when you navigate from page to page. Please set your browser to accept cookies to continue.

This narrowed the fossil age approximation to 1.95–1.78 million years old, within what’s known as the Olduvai Subchron.

Apart from being a geological curiosity, the constant toing-and-froing of the Earth’s polarity has proven extraordinarily useful in pin-pointing the geological ages of rocks.

This is perhaps no better illustrated than in the recent – and incredibly precise – dating of the Australopithecus sediba remains from South Africa.

At the 2 million year mark, the crucial transition point when Australopithecus became Homo, few fossil remains existed. sediba individuals found at the Malapa cave site some 60 km northwest of Johannesburg met their demise at almost precisely this time.

In fact, the age estimate for the skeletons is 1.977 years old, give or take 2000 years – a remarkably precise approximation given their antiquity.

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