Archaeologists vehemently disagree over the effects changing climate and competition from recently arriving humans had on the Neanderthals' demise.
The more accurate carbon clock should yield better dates for any overlap of humans and Neanderthals, as well as for determining how climate changes influenced the extinction of Neanderthals.
Two distinct sediment layers have formed in the lake every summer and winter over tens of thousands of years.
The researchers collected roughly 70-metre core samples from the lake and painstakingly counted the layers to come up with a direct record stretching back 52,000 years.
By measuring the ratio of the radio isotope to non-radioactive carbon, the amount of carbon-14 decay can be worked out, thereby giving an age for the specimen in question.
But that assumes that the amount of carbon-14 in the atmosphere was constant — any variation would speed up or slow down the clock.
Scientific archaeological research through Murray State University has revealed important information about the Mississippian people here at Wickliffe Mounds State Historic Site.
Bronk Ramsey’s team aimed to fill this gap by using sediment from bed of Lake Suigetsu, west of Tokyo.
“If you’re trying to look at archaeological sites at the order of 30,000 or 40,000 years ago, the ages may shift by only a few hundred years but that may be significant in putting them before or after changes in climate,” he says.
Take the extinction of Neanderthals, which occurred in western Europe less than 30,000 years ago.
As a rule, carbon dates are younger than calendar dates: a bone carbon-dated to 10,000 years is around 11,000 years old, and 20,000 carbon years roughly equates to 24,000 calendar years.
The problem, says Bronk Ramsey, is that tree rings provide a direct record that only goes as far back as about 14,000 years.