Instead, other methods are used to work out a fossil’s age.

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Different methods have their own limitations, especially with regard to the age range they can measure and the substances they can date.

A common problem with any dating method is that a sample may be contaminated with older or younger material and give a false age.

This problem is now reduced by the careful collection of samples, rigorous crosschecking and the use of newer techniques that can date minute samples.

Volcanic rocks – such as tuff and basalt – can be used in dating because they are formed at a particular moment in time, during an eruption.

This damage is in the form of tiny marks called fission tracks.

When volcanic rocks and minerals are formed, they do not contain fission tracks.

The number of tracks increases over time at a rate that depends on the uranium content.

Sedimentary rocks are rarely useful for dating because they are made up of bits of older rocks.

Uranium is present in many different rocks and minerals, usually in the form of uranium-238.

This form of uranium usually decays into a stable lead isotope but the uranium atoms can also split – a process known as fission.

During this process the pieces of the atom move apart at high speed, causing damage to the rock or mineral.