Radiocarbon (14C) accelerator mass spectrometry (AMS) dating has played a significant role towards improving our understanding of the timing of events and rates of change in archaeological and environmental records over the last 50 000 years. Although it is not always possible to find suitable macrofossils for 14C dating, microfossils, notably plant pollen, are a viable alternative. Obtaining preserved pollen samples of known provenance and of sufficient quantity for dating by 14C AMS is, however, challenging because of time-consuming methods of extraction and purification and possible contamination from other organic material. Here we report a new, rapid and straightforward method using flow cytometry (FCM) to distinguish, sort and collect sufficient quantities of fossil pollen with minimal contamination from lake sediments for radiocarbon dating. Using this approach, we demonstrate 14C AMS ages that date back to at least 40ka BP. While future work may be required to refine purification methodologies for different sample types and to precisely quantify the dating limit of this approach, FCM dating of microfossils shows considerable promise in generating robust geochronological frameworks for sequences that have previously proved problematic. © 2013 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
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