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.”
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
Return to Text
2. Alexander Cherkinsky, “Radiocarbon Analysis Report,” The University of Georgia Center for Applied Isotope Studies, August 14, 2012.
Return to Text
3. Qiaomei Fu, et. al, “Genome sequence of a 45,000-year-old modern human from western Siberia,” Nature 514:445–449, 2014
Return to Text
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
Return to Text