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The quest for an absolute chronology in human prehistory: anthropologists, chemists and the fluorine dating method in palaeoanthropology

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  13 January 2009

Department of Science and Technology in Society, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, VA 24061, USA.
Department of Science and Technology in Society, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, VA 24061, USA.


By the early twentieth century there was a growing need within palaeoanthropology and prehistoric archaeology to find a way of dating fossils and artefacts in order to know the age of specific specimens, but more importantly to establish an absolute chronology for human prehistory. The radiocarbon and potassium–argon dating methods revolutionized palaeoanthropology during the last half of the twentieth century. However, prior to the invention of these methods there were attempts to devise chemical means of dating fossil bone. Collaborations between Emile Rivière and Adolphe Carnot in the 1890s led to the development of the fluorine dating method, but it was not until the 1940s that this method was improved and widely implemented by Kenneth Oakley to resolve a number of problems in palaeoanthropology, including the Piltdown Man controversy. The invention of the fluorine dating method marked a significant advance in the quest for absolute dating in palaeoanthropology, but it also highlights interesting problems and issues relating to the ability of palaeoanthropologists and chemists to bring together different skills and bodies of knowledge in order successfully to develop and apply the fluorine dating method.

Research Article
Copyright © 2009 British Society for the History of Science

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89 A full discussion of the evidence and the means employed by the team led by Weiner and Oakley to uncover the Piltdown hoax is provided in Weiner, op. cit. (88); Spencer, op. cit. (13), Chapter 6.

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91 I plan to explore the research of Heizer and Cook as well as the application of their methods by Oakley in a separate paper.

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