science of determining the age of rocks, sediments and fossils

Geochronology is the science of finding the ages of rocks, fossils and sediments. It uses a number of methods.[1][2][3] Geochronology is the main tool used to get absolute age dates for all fossil assemblages, and for the history of the Earth and other bodies.

Dating methods


Radiometric dating


By measuring the amount of radioactive decay of a radioactive isotope with a known half-life, geologists can establish the absolute age of the parent material. A number of radioactive isotopes are used for this purpose, and depending on the rate of decay, are used for dating different geological periods. More slowly decaying isotopes are useful for longer periods of time, but less accurate in absolute years. With the exception of the radiocarbon method, most of these techniques are actually based on measuring an increase in the abundance of a radiogenic isotope, which is the decay-product of the radioactive parent isotope.[4][5][6] Two or more radiometric methods can be used in concert to achieve more robust results.[7] Most radiometric methods are suitable for geological time only, but some such as the radiocarbon method and the 40Ar/39Ar dating method can be extended into the time of early human life[8] and into recorded history.[9]

Some of the commonly used techniques are:

Cosmogenic nuclides


A series of techniques to find the age when a surface was created or exposed. Exposure dating uses the concentration of nuclides like 10Be, 26Al, 36Cl. They are produced by cosmic rays interacting with Earth materials. The data show when a surface, such as an alluvial fan, was created. Burial dating uses the radioactive decay of two elements to find the age when a sediment was buried away from cosmic rays.

Luminescence dating


Luminescence dating techniques use 'light' emitted from materials such as quartz, diamond, feldspar, and calcite. Many types of luminescence techniques are used in geology and in archaeology.

Incremental dating


Incremental dating techniques let us build year-by-year annual chronologies.

Paleomagnetic dating


The pattern of magnetisation in a rock formation can be used to help find its date.[11]


Tephra horizons in south-central Iceland

Marker horizons are stratigraphic units of the same age, with distinctive composition and appearance. So, though they are in different geographic sites, there is certainty about their age-equivalence. Fossil faunal and floral assemblages, marine and terrestrial, make for distinctive marker horizons.[12] Volcanic ash (tephra) has a geochemical fingerprint. Tephra is often used as a dating tool in archaeology, because the dates of some volcanic eruptions are well-established.



  1. Renne P.R; Ludwig K.R.& Karner D.B. 1998. Progress and challenges in geochronology. Science Progress, 83, 107–121 [1]
  2. Noller J.S; Sowers J.M.& Lettis W.R., 2000. Quaternary geochronology: methods and applications. American Geophysical Union, AGU Reference Shelf 4.
  3. Colman S.M; Pierce K.L.& Birkeland P.W. 1987. Suggested terminology for Quaternary dating methods. Quaternary Research, 28, 314–319.
  4. Dickin A.P. 1995. Radiogenic isotope geology. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-59891-5
  5. Faure G. 1986. Principles of isotope geology. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-471-86412-9
  6. Faure G. & Mensing D. 2005. Isotopes - principles and applications. 3rd ed, Wiley. ISBN 0-471-38437-2
  7. Dalrymple G.B. et al 1999. Age and thermal history of the Geysers plutonic complex (felsite unit), Geysers geothermal field, California: a 40Ar/39Ar and U–Pb study. Earth and Planetary Science Letters, 173, 285–298. [2]
  8. Ludwig K.R.& Renne P.R. 2000. Geochronology on the paleoanthropological time scale. Evolutionary Anthropology, 9, 101-110. [3] Archived 2013-01-05 at
  9. Renne P.R. et al 1997. 40Ar/39Ar dating into the historical realm: Calibration against Pliny the Younger. Science, 277, 1279-1280. [4]
  10. Plastino W. 2001. "Cosmic background reduction in the radiocarbon measurement by scintillation spectrometry at the underground laboratory of Gran Sasso" (PDF). Radiocarbon. 43 (2A): 157–161. doi:10.1017/S0033822200037954. S2CID 56275122.{{cite journal}}: CS1 maint: numeric names: authors list (link)
  11. Hnatyshin D. & Kravchinsky V.A. 2014. Paleomagnetic dating: methods, MATLAB software, example. Tectonophysics, doi: 10.1016/j.tecto.2014.05.013. [5]
  12. Demidov I.N. 2006. Identification of marker horizon in bottom sediments of the Onega periglacial lake. Doklady Earth Sciences, 407, 213-216. [6] Archived 2020-07-08 at the Wayback Machine