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15 Dec

After death, the carbon-14 decays with a half-life of about 5,730 years, and the dwindling ratio serves as a time stamp.

Libby's team proved the accuracy of this 'clock' on objects of known age, such as Egyptian mummy tombs, and bread from a house in Pompeii, Italy, that was burned during the eruption of Vesuvius.

If you Google 'archaeologist' and 'Higham', the first hit is likely to be Charles Higham, a 72-year-old professor who has charted the origins of agriculture and government in southeast Asia.

Tom was born in Cambridge, where his father was based until 1966.

Libby earned the 1960 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work.

“I admire him,” says Paul Mellars, an archaeologist from the University of Cambridge, UK, and an expert on this period in Europe, for “the sheer doggedness and sense of vision” he has for improving radiocarbon dating of the Palaeolithic.

So, at his father's urging, Tom applied for and completed a Ph D at the University of Waikato's Radiocarbon Dating Laboratory in Hamilton, then did a postdoc there.

And when a faculty position became available at a better-funded lab at the University of Oxford in 2000, he moved back to his birth country.

Beside a slab of trilobites, in a quiet corner of Britain's Oxford University Museum of Natural History, lies a collection of ochre-tinted human bones known as the Red Lady of Paviland.

In 1823, palaeontologist William Buckland painstakingly removed the fossils from a cave in Wales, and discovered ivory rods, shell beads and other ornaments in the vicinity.