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They found that for teeth formed after 1965, enamel radiocarbon content predicted year of birth within 1.5 years.
Radiocarbon levels in teeth formed before then contained less radiocarbon than expected, so when applied to teeth formed during that period, the method was less precise.
The generally poor post-mortem preservation of soft tissues would be a limiting factor to this approach.
However, the researchers suggested that soft tissue radiocarbon content would be transferred to, and preserved in, the pupal cases of insects whose larvae feed on these tissues.
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Archaeologists have long used carbon-14 dating (also known as radiocarbon dating) to estimate the age of certain objects.
They measured carbon-14 levels in various tissues from 36 humans whose birth and death dates were known.
To determine year of birth, the researchers focused on tooth enamel.
Thus, pupal case radiocarbon content would serve as a decay-resistant proxy for the tissues, yielding the year of death.
Everyone born after that would be expected to have the same level of carbon-14 that prevailed before the nuclear testing era.
All the people whose tissues were tested for the study were residents of the United States.
Atmospheric dispersion tends to create uniform levels of carbon-14 around the globe, and researchers believe that these would be reflected in human tissues regardless of location.
However, more testing is needed to confirm that belief. 269, March 2012NCJ 237722 Philip Bulman is a writer and editor at NIJ.