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"The other side says it had nothing to do with cultural behavior, that it was the Europeans who brought disease that killed the Rapa Nui.

Our results show that there is some of both going on, but the important point is that we show evidence of some communities being abandoned prior to European contact." Chadwick joined archaeologists Christopher Stevenson of Virginia Commonwealth University, Cedric Puleston of UC Davis and Thegn Ladefoged of the University of Auckland in examining six agriculture sites used by the island's statue-building inhabitants.

The technique hinges on carbon-14, a radioactive isotope of the element that, unlike other more stable forms of carbon, decays away at a steady rate.

Organisms capture a certain amount of carbon-14 from the atmosphere when they are alive.

“If you have a better estimate of when the last Neanderthals lived to compare to climate records in Greenland or elsewhere, then you’ll have a better idea of whether the extinction was climate driven or competition with modern humans,” says Paula Reimer, a geochronologist at Queen’s University in Belfast, UK.

She will lead efforts to combine the Lake Suigetsu measurements with marine and cave records to come up with a new standard for carbon dating.

“If you’re trying to look at archaeological sites at the order of 30,000 or 40,000 years ago, the ages may shift by only a few hundred years but that may be significant in putting them before or after changes in climate,” he says.

Take the extinction of Neanderthals, which occurred in western Europe less than 30,000 years ago.

The study sites reflected the environmental diversity of the 63-square-mile island situated nearly 2,300 miles off the west coast of Chile.Marine records, such as corals, have been used to push farther back in time, but these are less robust because levels of carbon-14 in the atmosphere and the ocean are not identical and tend shift with changes in ocean circulation.Bronk Ramsey’s team aimed to fill this gap by using sediment from bed of Lake Suigetsu, west of Tokyo. Climate records from a Japanese lake are set to improve the accuracy of the dating technique, which could help to shed light on archaeological mysteries such as why Neanderthals became extinct.Carbon dating is used to work out the age of organic material — in effect, any living thing.

Two distinct sediment layers have formed in the lake every summer and winter over tens of thousands of years.

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