Dating other people

2 August 2018

Tom Higham

Professor Tom Higham

A University of Waikato graduate who analyses ancient religious relics for a job, including the remains of St David, St Luke and John the Baptist, will be presented with a Distinguished Alumni Award from the university this month.

Archaeologist Professor Tom Higham is based at the University of Oxford in the UK and is a world leader in the field of radiocarbon dating and archaeological science. He cut his teeth at Waikato back in the 1990s. His PhD thesis examined questions surrounding the initial settlement of New Zealand by humans. By dating moa-egg shells from the key site of Wairau Bar in Marlborough, he helped establish the earliest occupation of a site considered to be a first-generation Polynesian village around 1280-1300 AD. He is a former Deputy Director of Waikato University’s Radiocarbon Laboratory.

Professor Higham moved to Oxford in 2001 and will become Director of the Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit in October this year. During his years at Oxford, the quality of archaeological science in Britain has steadily improved. His laboratory is arguably the best place in the world for dating archaeological samples spanning back to 50,000 years.

He is known for systematically developing and applying the latest radiocarbon techniques to open new possibilities in archaeology. He likens his work to a detective story – starting with a puzzle or mystery and using forensic techniques to solve it. His work involves using accelerator mass spectrometry which requires tiny sample sizes; down to less than 1 milligram of carbon. He has worked to improve the dating of bones from archaeological sites, particularly in the key area of decontamination of bone collagen and the analysis of single amino acids.

In 2013, funded by the European Research Council, Professor Higham launched the "PalaeoChron" Project, a €2.5 million research programme that focuses on the dating of late Neanderthals, early modern humans and Denisovans across hundreds of sites in Europe and Asia. The results have had far-reaching consequences, increasing our understanding of how modern humans spread out from Africa into across Eurasia where they replaced Neanderthals, interbreeding with them on at least three occasions. In a recent major breakthrough his team discovered a tiny new fossil from Denisova Cave in Russia estimated to be more than 120,000 years old, which nuclear DNA analysis revealed had a Neanderthal mother and a Denisovan father.

Professor Higham’s laboratory dated the Shroud of Turin back in 1986, as well as many other religious relics more recently, including the remains attributed to St David, St Luke and John the Baptist.

Professor Higham is one of five University of Waikato who’ll be receiving a Distinguished Alumni Award at Claudelands on 24 August. The others are long-serving politician Dame Annette King, psychologist Dr Sarah Calvert, international businessman Jan Zijderveld and Queen’s Counsel and company director Miriam Dean CNZM.

Professor Tom Higham will give a public lecture from 12.30 - 1.30 on Friday 24 August at the Hamilton campus: "The future of the past: Radiocarbon dating and archaeology." Please register to attend.