Geologists have established a set of principles that can be applied to sedimentary and volcanic rocks that are exposed at the Earth's surface to determine the relative ages of geological events preserved in the rock record.
For example, in the rocks exposed in the walls of the Grand Canyon (Figure 1) there are many horizontal layers, which are called strata.
For example, based on the primate fossil record, scientists know that living primates evolved from fossil primates and that this evolutionary history took tens of millions of years.
By comparing fossils of different primate species, scientists can examine how features changed and how primates evolved through time.
The study of strata is called stratigraphy, and using a few basic principles, it is possible to work out the relative ages of rocks.
Just as when they were deposited, the strata are mostly horizontal (principle of original horizontality).
This is the principle of original horizontality: layers of strata are deposited horizontally or nearly horizontally (Figure 2).
Thus, any deformations of strata (Figures 2 and 3) must have occurred after the rock was deposited.
If the layers you're examining are very small, it can be hard to determine for sure which occurred first.
However, the age of each fossil primate needs to be determined so that fossils of the same age found in different parts of the world and fossils of different ages can be compared.
There are three general approaches that allow scientists to date geological materials and answer the question: "How old is this fossil?
Relative dating is the process of determining the age of an artifact, a layer of rock, a fossil, or something else by using the position of that item in relation to other surrounding rock layers and items.
(Remember, we are only able to determine whether something is older or younger compared to something else.) See this link for a thorough review of how relative dating is done.