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The researchers found that if they assumed tooth enamel radiocarbon content to be determined by the atmospheric level at the time the tooth was formed, then they could deduce the year of birth.
They found that for teeth formed after 1965, enamel radiocarbon content predicted year of birth within 1.5 years.
The new method is based on the fact that over the past 60 years, environmental levels of radiocarbon have been significantly perturbed by mid-20th-century episodes of above-ground nuclear weapons testing.
Before the nuclear age, the amount of radiocarbon in the environment varied little in the span of a century.
Barring any future nuclear detonations, this method should continue to be useful for year-of-birth determinations for people born during the next 10 or 20 years.
Everyone born after that would be expected to have the same level of carbon-14 that prevailed before the nuclear testing era.
Therefore, the radiocarbon level in those tissues post-mortem would indicate the year of death.
Radiocarbon levels in teeth formed before then contained less radiocarbon than expected, so when applied to teeth formed during that period, the method was less precise.