Since 1947, scientists have reckoned the ages of many old objects by measuring the amounts of radioactive carbon they contain.
New research shows, however, that some estimates based on carbon may have erred by thousands of years.
In some cases, the latter ratio appears to be a much more accurate gauge of age than the customary method of carbon dating, the scientists said.
In principle, any material of plant or animal origin, including textiles, wood, bones and leather, can be dated by its content of carbon 14, a radioactive form of carbon in the environment that is incorporated by all living things.
Because it is radioactive, carbon 14 steadily decays into other substances.
The best gauge they have found is dendrochronology: the measurement of age by tree rings.
It is too soon to know whether the discovery will seriously upset the estimated dates of events like the arrival of human beings in the Western Hemisphere, scientists said.But it is already clear that the carbon method of dating will have to be recalibrated and corrected in some cases.