“Dating Duo Illuminates Modern Humans’ Journey”

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The Story

“Dating Duo Illuminates Modern Humans’ Journey”
http://www.sciencemag.org/content/332/6030/658.1.summary [abstract; subscription required for full access]
by Michael Balter
Science, May 6, 2011

The Pitch

[Balter notes that because he is a Contributing Correspondent at Science (and former Paris bureau chief) and has been writing for Science for 20 years, most of his pitches tend to be fairly informal emails. But he did put in some extra effort when pitching a profile of two OSL daters in Australia.]

It’s hard to imagine a more “timely” profile than to feature two of the world’s top dating experts, Richard “Bert” Roberts and Zenobia Jacobs, both at the University of Wollongong in Australia. They are pioneers in the technique of optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) dating, a methodology that is redrawing the chronology of modern human evolution across the globe, because it fills the periods that radiocarbon can’t reach–ie, earlier than about 50,000 years ago. Their OSL lab in Wollongong “is widely acknowledged to be the world’s premiere facility,” says dating expert Thomas Higham of Oxford University.

Bert pioneered the single-grain technique for OSL dating, which avoids many of the problems of sediment mixing in previous OSL work, which relied on dating multiple grains. With these new techniques, which Zenobia has helped to fine-tune, the two of them have traveled the world, putting new, more accurate dates on the map in Africa, Europe, and Australia. A few of their accomplishments:

Bert: Dating of Australia’s earliest known archaeological sites; dating of megafauna extinctions in Australia; dating of the Hobbit; dating of dozens of Middle and Late Stone Age sites all over Africa; dating of sites in India andArabia (with Michael Petraglia.)

Zenobia: Dating of shell beads and ochre at Blombos, Sibudu, Pinnacle Point,and dating of Howieson’s Poort and Still Bay stone tools across southern Africa (the basis of her recent Science paper, very widely cited); dating of key sites in East and North Africa; redating of all early archaeological sites in Australia (she did all that even though she only got her PhD in 2004.)

Why now? Two main reasons.
First, much of this work is still ongoing, ie we are catching them in the act of rewriting the chronology of modern human evolution and migration across the world. Their dates are the scaffolding upon which hypotheses about the emergence of modern human behavior must be mounted, and they have provided some of the first reliable guideposts to the order in which key developments unfolded.

Second, Bert, 51, and Zenobia, 34, are getting married on December 2, and will be fresh from their honeymoon when I see them in Wollongong on Dec 27. They call themselves the “double daters!” Says Higham: “In Zenobia [Bert] has found his ideal partner… her work in South Africa… is hugely important, lying, as it does, just beyond the range of AMS radiocarbon dating.”

I have met them both, and they are charming. Bert is a flamboyant character with a great Australian sense of humor. Zenobia is more reserved and cautious, but the chemistry between them obviously works.

Logistics: Wollongong is about an hour or so drive from Sydney, where I will be based. Expenses would be minimal: Car rental for a couple of days (they don’t live near the train line), taking them out for a meal, and they have offered to put me up in their guest room (or one night in a hotel if we decide not to accept.)

I hope you agree that this is a must do, and great opportunity to take advantage of my time in Australia.

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