An Update On The Triceratops Fossil That Contained Soft Tissue

A triceratops skull (click for credit)

A triceratops skull (click for credit)

In March of 2013, I wrote about soft tissue that had been found in the fossilized remains of a Triceratops horridus, which is supposed to be about 65 million years old. One of the scientists who found the tissue and published a paper on it in the peer-reviewed literature1 (Mark Armitage) was subsequently fired from his position at California State University Northridge. He has sued the university, claiming that he was fired because of his religious views. This update isn’t about the lawsuit; I have no knowledge of how that is going. Instead, this update is about the fossil itself.

Samples from the fossil were sent to Dr. Alexander Cherkinsky at the University of Georgia’s Center for Applied Isotope Studies for dating via the carbon-14 dating method. Since the current half-life of carbon-14 is “only” about 5,700 years, there should be no detectable levels of it in the original parts of the fossil, if the fossil is millions of years old. However, Dr. Cherkinsky’s lab found very detectable levels of carbon-14. In fact, there was so much carbon-14 in the fossil that it was given a date of 41,010 ± 220 years.2 This is well within the accepted range of carbon-14 dating, and it is actually younger than other carbon-14 dates reported in the scientific literature.3

While this is an interesting result, it is not as interesting as I would like it to be. I wanted the soft tissue that was found in the fossil to be dated, but it was not. Instead, the fossil’s bioapatite (a mineral found in bone) was dated. According to a 2009 report in the journal Radiocarbon, bioapatite is actually preferable to soft tissue in many cases. As the report states:4

Contamination of the organic fraction in the process of the burial or during museum preservation treatment generally prohibits the use of the collagen fraction for dating. Our investigation has shown that the pretreatment of bone with diluted acetic acid following a proscribed technique allows the separation of the bioapatite fraction from diagenetic carbonates.

Please note that “diagenetic carbonates” refer to contaminants that occur during the fossilization process. The report then gives a method by which original bioapatite can be extracted from a fossil. Dr. Cherkinsky’s lab followed that procedure. Since the lab specifically reported a date for the fossil’s bioapatite, I have to assume that the investigators who actually did the preparation and dating think they were dating the fossil’s original bioapatite, not a mixture of bone and contaminants.

Does this conclusively show that the Triceratops horridus is not millions of years old? No. The lab might not have been able to completely isolate the fossil’s original bioapatite, so the result may have contamination in it. However, I think it adds to the case that the bone is not millions of years old. When you also consider the fact that many other dinosaur bones (and other things that are supposed to be millions of years old) are dated as only being 22,000-41,000 years old, you have to at least conclude that there is something wrong somewhere. Either the carbon-14 dating system is not as robust as some want to believe, or the fossils are not as old as some want to believe.

It will be interesting to see what future research says about this. For right now, however, I am reminded of something that happened at one of the creation/evolution debates I participated in. I had presented some carbon-14 dates of dinosaur bones during the debate, and in his rebuttal, the evolutionist (Dr. Robert Martin) said that the dates were obviously wrong because of contamination. During the Q&A session with the audience that followed the debate, one person asked how reliable dating methods are. Dr. Martin said very reliable. He specifically said that carbon-14 dating is accurate to within 100 years or so. I chimed in with, “Well, unless it is dinosaur fossils being dated. Then, of course, it’s completely useless.”

REFERENCES

1. Mark Hollis Armitage and Kevin Lee Anderson, “Soft sheets of fibrillar bone from a fossil of the supraorbital horn of the dinosaur Triceratops horridus,” Acta Histochemica, 115(6):603–608, 2013
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2. Alexander Cherkinsky, “Radiocarbon Analysis Report,” The University of Georgia Center for Applied Isotope Studies, August 14, 2012.
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3. Qiaomei Fu, et. al, “Genome sequence of a 45,000-year-old modern human from western Siberia,” Nature 514:445–449, 2014
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4. Alexander Cherkinsky, “Can we get a good radiocarbon age from “bad bone”? Determining the reliability of radiocarbon age from bioapatite,” Radiocarbon 51(2):647–655, 2009
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14 Comments

  1. JoeCoder says:

    Dr. Wile, do you know where I can find a link to source #2? Google isn’t bringing up anything and Cherkinsy’s ResearchGate profile doesn’t list it among his papers?

    Also, I think the date on Armitage’s paper is off by about 90 years 😛

    1. jlwile says:

      Thanks for pointing out the error in reference 1, Joe. I fixed that. I doubt that reference 2 is published in the literature. It is a report that was sent from Cherkinsy’s lab to Hugh Miller, who was the original discoverer of the fossil. I will send you the contact information where you can get the report via your e-mail address.

  2. S.M. says:

    Good response!

  3. Zorcey says:

    Not to be “that guy”, but why do the majority of dinosaur fossils (as far as I am told) tend to come up without traceable amounts of Carbon-14 within them? Contamination would seem to be the most logical reason for the discovery of Carbon-14 in a fossil – if most others like it do not contain the same radioactive isotope. It is on that point, though, where I am not certain.

    1. jlwile says:

      Zorcey, I am not sure that most dinosaur fossils come up without traceable amounts of carbon-14. According to John Fisher, the Paleochronology group headed by Hugh Miller has had numerous dinosaur bone samples tested at several different labs. So far every bone tested has yielded a carbon-14 age in the range of 22,000 to 41,000 years before present (BP). I think it has been assumed by lots of people that most dinosaur bones are without traceable carbon-14. However, actual tests (at least the tests with which I am familiar) seem to indicate that’s not true.

  4. Zorcey says:

    I figured that would end up being the case. Misinformation seems to spread rather easily now that many people just blindly accept the dogma of Evolutionism. Coincidence? But I digress. Anyway, thanks for clearing that up, Dr. Wile.

  5. JoeCoder says:

    I received a copy of the C14 report from source #2. Bioapatite was C14 dated by Alexander Cherkinsky at the Center for Applied Isotope Studies at the University of Georgia, with a date of 41,010 ± 220 years BP, having 0.61 ± 0.02 pMC (percent modern carbon). The whole bone was also C14 dated to 33,570 ± 120 years BP, with 1.53 ± 0.02 pMC. The sample had no collagen.

    1. jlwile says:

      That’s correct, Joe. According to reference 4, the whole bone value is not as reliable as the bioapatite date. The very fact that they separated out the whole bone date from the bioapatite date is what makes me think they really thought they had original bioapatite from the fossil.

  6. Bill Stolk says:

    Have the same samples been tested with other dating methods, such as Potassium/Argon dating? If so, how did the results compare with the C14 dating? What would it mean if there was a discrepancy between them?

    1. jlwile says:

      Bones can’t be dated with the potassium/argon method, Bill. Only igneous rock can be dated that way. Now, parts of the geological formation in which the fossils were found have been dated by various radiometric methods, and the consensus is that the rocks themselves are 64-66 million years old. Thus, the rock dates don’t agree with the fossil dates. However, that’s not atypical. For example, wood found in igneous rock is carbon-14 dated to be between 29.5 and 44.7 thousand years old, while the igneous rocks that contain them are potassium/argon dated to be between 43.9 and 47.5 million years old. There is a lot of discord among radiometric dates, and I think that reflects the fact that the methods are not reliable dating methods.

  7. Tim says:

    Are these young C14 dates seldom enough to fall into the realm of statistical anomaly? I read this article http://www.asa3.org/ASA/resources/Wiens.html#page 20 a while back and this guy makes these c14 findings out to be insignificantly small and therefore irrelevant data, especially when the other dating methods yield similar results.
    Also, why do you think the dates come back as 41k instead of 6-10k?
    Thanks for the update, I was hoping Mr Armitage would submit these for C14 dating.

    1. jlwile says:

      Thanks for your questions Tim. The article you linked has lots and lots of problems. Dr. Walker does a good job of showing most of them. The idea that discordant dates are not significant is one of the many errors in that article. Not only has every dinosaur fossil dated by this group turned out to be dated in the range of 20,000-40,000 years old, several other samples that are supposed to be millions of years old, including coal and diamonds, have been carbon dated to be only tens of thousands of years old.

      There are probably several reasons the dates come back as tens of thousands of years old. However, the most important one probably is related to the earth’s magnetic field. The only working theory that explains planetary magnetic fields is a young-earth theory, and it says the earth’s magnetic field was significantly stronger in the past. This would have reduced the amount of cosmic rays that interacted with the atmosphere, which in turn would have reduced the amount of carbon-14 in the atmosphere. Since organisms that died long ago had less carbon-14 to begin with, their carbon-14 dates would turn out to be too old. The older the fossil, the more in error the fossil’s carbon-14 date would be.

      You ask if carbon-14 is the most reliable of the methods. I suppose it is in the sense that tree rings provide a reasonable calibration for it back until about 2,500 BC or so. After that, the calibration gets a lot trickier, and as a result, it gets more and more controversial. However, all radiometric dating processes suffer from assumptions that are either known to be false or are hard to defend. As a result, there is an enormous amount of discord among radiometric dating techniques, and I don’t find any of them to be incredibly reliable.

  8. Tim says:

    Dr Wile,
    Sorry, one more question. Is C14 the most reliable of the radiometric dating methods?

  9. Tim says:

    Thanks for that response by Dr Walker. Its just what I was looking for.