Archaeology: Date with history
By revamping radiocarbon dating, Tom Higham is painting a new picture of humans’ arrival in Europe.
Beside a slab of trilobites, in a quiet corner of Britain’s Oxford University Museum of Natural History, lies a collection of ochre-tinted human bones known as the Red Lady of Paviland. In 1823, palaeontologist William Buckland painstakingly removed the fossils from a cave in Wales, and discovered ivory rods, shell beads and other ornaments in the vicinity. 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. Buckland’s immediate successors did a little better. They determined that the Red Lady was in fact a man, and that the ornaments resembled those found at much older sites in continental Europe. Then, in the twentieth century, carbon dating found the bones to be about 22,000 years old1 and, later, 30,000 years old2— even though much of Britain was encased in ice and seemingly uninhabitable for part of that time. When Higham eventually got the bones, his team came up with a more likely scenario: they were closer to 33,000 years old and one of the earliest examples of ceremonial burial in Western Europe