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Carbon Dating Lesson for Kids

Instructor: Rebecca Gillaspy

Dr. Gillaspy has taught health science at University of Phoenix and Ashford University and has a degree from Palmer College of Chiropractic.

Did you ever wonder how scientists know a fossil is 10,000 years old or a piece of paper is 2,000 years old? They use a method called carbon dating. In this lesson you'll learn about carbon dating and how it works.

What Is Carbon Dating?

Imagine going for a hike in the mountains and finding a 5,000-year-old body frozen in a block of ice! In 1991, this adventure actually happened to a couple that was walking in the mountains of Europe. While on a hike, a couple from Germany found what is now referred to as the Iceman.

You might be wondering how we know that the Iceman is more than 5,000 years old. The answer is carbon dating. Carbon dating is a way of telling the age of a once living thing by measuring the amount of carbon inside of it.

Carbon dating was such an important discovery that American scientist Willard Libby won the top science award called the Nobel Prize for discovering it.

What's So Important about Carbon?

Do you know what you have in common with a tree and a dog? You all have carbon. Carbon is an element that is found in every living thing on planet Earth.

A typical atom of carbon looks like this.
carbon atom

Carbon exists in different forms. One form of carbon inside living things is called carbon-14. Carbon-14 is a radioactive form of carbon, which sounds scary, but it's not dangerous, it just means that it's not stable, so after an organism dies, carbon-14 decays or goes away.

Scientists know how fast carbon-14 decays, so by measuring how much of it is remaining in a dead organism, they can figure out how long it has been dead.

When scientists chipped the Iceman out of the block of ice he was found in, they tested his body to see how many carbon-14 atoms were remaining, which told them his age.

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