Until then, the inherent error from this uncertainty must be recognized.
A final problem of importance in carbon-14 dating is the matter of sample contamination.
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Specifically, volcanic carbon dioxide is known to depress the carbon-14 level of nearby vegetation, and dissolved limestone carbonate occasionally has a similar effect on freshwater mollusks, as does upwelling of deep ocean water on marine mollusks.
In every case, the living material affected gives the appearance of built-in age.
So low is such a carbon-14 level that no one had detected natural carbon-14 until Libby, guided by his own predictions, set out specifically to measure it.
His success initiated a series of measurements designed to answer two questions: Is the concentration of carbon-14 uniform throughout the plant and animal kingdoms?
It is clear that carbon-14 dates lack the accuracy that traditional historians would like to have.
There may come a time when all radiocarbon ages rest on firmer knowledge of the sample’s original carbon-14 level than is now available.
It is now clear that carbon-14 is not homogeneously distributed among today’s plants and animals.
The occasional exceptions all involve nonatmospheric contributions of carbon-14-depleted carbon dioxide to organic synthesis.
Whenever the number of cosmic rays in the atmosphere is low, the rate of carbon-14 production is correspondingly low, resulting in a decrease of the radioisotope in the carbon-exchange reservoir described above.