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Thus, the ratio of radiocarbon to stable carbon in a living plant is the same as the ratio of radiocarbon to stable carbon in the atmosphere at any given time.Animals (and humans) get their carbon atoms primarily from what they eat (i.e., plants).We know that it is older than Christendom, but whether by a couple of years or a couple of centuries, or even by more than a millenium, we can do no more than guess." [Rasmus Nyerup, (Danish antiquarian), 1802 (in Trigger, 19)].
This calibration step eliminates any concern about fluctuations in historic radiocarbon to stable carbon ratios or decay rates.
Radiocarbon dating works by precisely measuring the ratio of radiocarbon to stable carbon in a sample. The tree-ring chronologies have been constructed by counting the annual rings in living trees and matching patterns in these rings to older wood and dead trees.
By cross-matching tree-ring sequences in individual specimens a long, continuous tree-ring chronology is constructed with very little dating uncertainty. for more information on tree-ring chronologies.) By measuring radiocarbon concentrations in these tree-rings of known age a calibration table is constructed giving the true date of a sample versus its raw radiocarbon date.
Because atmospheric carbon 14 arises at about the same rate that the atom decays, Earth's levels of carbon 14 have remained fairly constant.
Once an organism is dead, however, no new carbon is actively absorbed by its tissues, and its carbon 14 gradually decays.