Radiocarbon dating uncertainty constrains our ability to identify cyclical human-environment dynamics

Author(s): William Carleton; Mark Collard; Dave Campbell

Year: 2017


Archaeologists have long been interested in cyclical human-environment dynamics. This interest is indicated by the dozens of published studies that refer to "adaptive cycles" and by the fact that one of the highest cited papers in the history of archaeology focuses on the impact of cyclical drought on the Classic Maya. Unfortunately, recent work suggests that identifying cycles in archaeological and palaeoclimatological time series data can be challenging when the observations are dated with radiocarbon assays. The problem is that the highly irregular, temporal uncertainties that are characteristic of calibrated radiocarbon dates can lead to the identification of spurious cycles. In the present study, we sought to delineate the conditions under which cycles can be confidently recognized in radiocarbon-dated time series datasets. To do so, we conducted simulation experiments involving thousands of artificial time series with known cyclical patterns, varying the parameters of each experiment to determine when radiocarbon dating uncertainty became too great to allow for the reliable detection of the known cycle. We found that, at best, we could correctly identify cycles only 42% of the time, indicating that the temporal uncertainty of calibrated radiocarbon dates makes it very difficult to identify cycles in archaeological and environmental records.

Cite this Record

Radiocarbon dating uncertainty constrains our ability to identify cyclical human-environment dynamics. William Carleton, Mark Collard, Dave Campbell. Presented at The 81st Annual Meeting of the Society for American Archaeology, Vancouver, British Columbia. 2017 ( tDAR id: 430281)


Spatial Coverage

min long: -107.271; min lat: 12.383 ; max long: -86.353; max lat: 23.08 ;

Record Identifiers

Abstract Id(s): 15557