ABSTRACT: Unrepeatability of evolution and the correspondence of the fossil record to ancestor-descendant successions of species are the unavoidable, although usually hidden, assumptions in any reliable age determination based on fossils. We expose these assumptions while dating early Paleozoic carbonate rock deposits in the Lung Cu section at the Vietnamese–Chinese border. The best-preserved and most abundant fossils in this section are shumardiid trilobites. The succession of shumardiid species, based on data from elsewhere, provides an evolutionary reference standard. The shumardiid record is not sufficiently complete to verify hypotheses of ancestor-descendant relationships but enables estimation of the ‘degree of evolutionary advancement’ of the Vietnamese species. This suggests an age close to the Cambrian–Ordovician boundary. Although considered non-scientific by cladists, such inferences are testable. Support for a late Furongian or early Tremadocian age is provided by the occurrence of Cordylodus conodonts in strata above the trilobite-bearing bed. The conodont evolution has a good fossil record interpreted in population terms in the Baltic region and Australia, including the lineage represented in Vietnam. Age determination based on such evolutionary reasoning is reliable but of a relatively low resolution, because the rate of morphological evolution is generally low. Generally, more precise dating is offered by distribution of fossils controlled by ecological factors, which are repeatable and mostly diachronous over large geographic distances, but they may have happened relatively rapidly. The appearance of the Iapetognathus-Chosonodina-bearing conodont assemblage in the Lung Cu area, as suggested by its occurrences elsewhere, was probably due to abrupt faunal migration into the region.