Absolute & Relative Dating


Relative ages.

In most families a person’s age fits into his or her generation: Siblings are around the same age as are first cousins. But in some families, multiple marriages, delayed childbearing, extended childbearing or other variations mixes up generations so that Aunt Julia may be five years younger than her nephew. In a family like this it’s hard to tell how people are related simply by age. With rock units we use certain principles to tell their ages relative to each other.

Relative Age Dating

Early geologists had no way to determine the absolute age of a geological material. If they didn’t see it form, they couldn’t know if a rock was one hundred years or 100 million years old. What they could do was determine the ages of materials relative to each other. Using sensible principles they could say whether one rock was older than another and when a process occurred relative to those rocks.

Steno’s Laws

Remember Nicholas Steno, who determined that fossils represented parts of once-living organisms? Steno also noticed that fossil seashells could be found in rocks and mountains far from any ocean. He wanted to explain how that could occur. Steno proposed that if a rock contained the fossils of marine animals, the rock formed from sediments that were deposited on the seafloor. These rocks were then uplifted to become mountains.

This scenario led him to develop the principles that are discussed below. They are known as Steno’s laws. Steno’s laws are illustrated below in (Figure below).

  • Original horizontality: Sediments are deposited in fairly flat, horizontal layers. If a sedimentary rock is found tilted, the layer was tilted after it was formed.
  • Lateral continuity: Sediments are deposited in continuous sheets that span the body of water that they are deposited in. When a valley cuts through sedimentary layers, it is assumed that the rocks on either side of the valley were originally continuous.
  • Superposition: Sedimentary rocks are deposited one on top of another. The youngest layers are found at the top of the sequence, and the oldest layers are found at the bottom.

(a) Original horizontality. (b) Lateral continuity. (c) Superposition.

More Principles of Relative Dating

Other scientists observed rock layers and formulated other principles.

Geologist William Smith (1769-1839) identified the principle of faunal succession, which recognizes that:

  • Some fossil types are never found with certain other fossil types (e.g. human ancestors are never found with dinosaurs) meaning that fossils in a rock layer represent what lived during the period the rock was deposited.
  • Older features are replaced by more modern features in fossil organisms as species change through time; e.g. feathered dinosaurs precede birds in the fossil record.
  • Fossil species with features that change distinctly and quickly can be used to determine the age of rock layers quite precisely.

Scottish geologist, James Hutton (1726-1797) recognized the principle of cross-cutting relationships. This helps geologists to determine the older and younger of two rock units (Figure below).

If an igneous dike (B) cuts a series of metamorphic rocks (A), which is older and which is younger? In this image, A must have existed first for B to cut across it.

The Grand Canyon

The Grand Canyon provides an excellent illustration of the principles above. The many horizontal layers of sedimentary rock illustrate the principle of original horizontality (Figurebelow).

  • The youngest rock layers are at the top and the oldest are at the bottom, which is described by the law of superposition.
  • Distinctive rock layers, such as the Kaibab Limestone, are matched across the broad expanse of the canyon. These rock layers were once connected, as stated by the rule of lateral continuity.
  • The Colorado River cuts through all the layers of rock to form the canyon. Based on the principle of cross-cutting relationships, the river must be younger than all of the rock layers that it cuts through.

The Grand Canyon, with the Kaibab Limestone marked with arrows.


  • Sediments are deposited horizontally with the oldest at the bottom. Any difference in this pattern means that the rock units have been altered.
  • The principle of faunal succession recognizes that species evolve and these changes can be seen in the rock record.
  • The Grand Canyon exhibits many of the principles of relative dating and is a fantastic location for learning about the geology of the southwestern U.S.


Use this resource to answer the questions that follow.

Absolute vs. Relative Dating


1. What is superposition?

2. How can the age of the layers be determined?

3. How does volcanic ash help with relative dating?

4. What are the radioactive elements?

5. What is the clock for determining relative age?


1. How do Steno’s laws help geologists to decipher the geological history of a region?

2. What is the principle of faunal succession?

3. Why does just about every geology textbook use the Grand Canyon as the example in the sections on geological history?


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