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Radiocarbon dating is used to work out the age of things that died up to 50,000 years ago. As far as working out the age of long-dead things goes, carbon has got a few things going for it. The proteins, carbohydrates and fats that make up much of our tissues are all based on carbon.
As well as the tree ring record, scientists have used the carbon record from corals to calculate C14/C12 levels right back to 50,000 years ago.
By about 58,000 years (ten half-lives) after an organism has died, there's so little radioactive carbon left (less than 1/1000) that calculations of age are no longer accurate.
That's why radiocarbon dating is only reliable for samples up to 50,000 years old.
So calculating the age range of a once-living sample involves measuring the 14C/12C ratio, and using this the known half-life to estimate the length of time since the sample died.
That age range is then compared with known 14C/12C ratios from the tree ring/marine record to find the best match, and the result is a calibrated age range you can be 95 per cent sure of.