Within 30,000 years, 98% of the already vanishingly small quantities of carbon-14 in bone is gone.And carbon-14 molecules from surrounding soil start to seep into the fossils.

He concluded that they belonged to a Roman-era witch or prostitute.

“He did a good job of excavating, but he interpreted it totally wrong,” says Tom Higham, a 46-year-old archaeological scientist at the University of Oxford's Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit.

In the process, Higham is rewriting European history for around 30,000–50,000 years ago — a time referred to as the Middle-to-Upper Palaeolithic transition — when the first modern-looking humans arrived from Africa and the last Neanderthals vanished.

Higham thinks that better carbon dating will help to resolve debates about whether the two ever met, swapped ideas or even had sex.

Tom found himself drawn to the quantitative side of archaeology to help fill in those details.

His father had counselled that if he wanted a future in the field, Tom ought to join the push to make it a more rigorous science, emphasizing testable theory, experiment and statistics.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.Charles then moved the family and nine-month-old Tom to New Zealand's rugged south island to start an archaeology department at the University of Otago in Dunedin.As a teenager, Tom spent summers at Ban Na Di, a study site in northeastern Thailand, where his duties included helping with human excavations and brewing tea for the crew.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.