The Oldest Living Tree on Earth is Older Than the Egyptian Pyramids
Visitors from around the world flock to visit the famed 4,500-year-old Great Pyramid of Giza , now remembered as one of the seven wonders of the ancient world . But hidden high in California’s White Mountains is an unassuming natural wonder which out-dates the Giza Pyramid by hundreds of years.
A Bristlecone Pine tree ( Pinus longaeva ) known as Methuselah holds the Guinness World Record as the oldest named individual tree on Earth. At over 4,850 years old, its age was determined through core samples. To put its age into proportion, by the time of the Trojan War around 1200 BC, Methuselah would have been over 1,600 years old! The name pays homage to the biblical figure Methuselah, the oldest person of all time (969 years to be precise) according to Judeo-Christian tradition.
With their distinctive gnarled appearance, molded over (literally) thousands of years, Bristlecone Pines have survived unforgiving landscapes and temperatures. There’s something ironic in the fact that the oldest living tree is actually located in the so-called New World .
Methuselah’s discovery in the 1950s attracted tourists to the area, causing damage over time. Another Bristlecone Pine, nicknamed Prometheus, was inadvertently cut down when a researcher tried to recover his tree corer from its trunk. Smithsonian Magazine revealed he only realized what he’d done after reviewing the sample and discovering it had been over 5,000 years old. This tragic event inspired the authorities to create the Great Basin National Park to protect the millennial Bristlecone Pines. As a result, the true location of Methuselah is now classified.
A Bristlecone Pine in the White Mountains of California, home to the oldest living tree in the world. (Rick Goldwaser / CC BY 2.0 )
But, what’s the secret to its survival? Resilient to extreme conditions, its roots have adapted to nourish only certain branches, limiting the impact when they die. The Bristlecone Pine is also a slow-grower (one-hundredth of an inch a year) while its needles live for over 30 years, helping the tree conserve energy.
Over the years, Methuselah has faced some stiff competition. In 2022, Science reported that the Jonathan Barichivich concluded that a Patagonian cypress ( Fitzroya cupressoides ) in Chile, known as the Gran Abuelo (great grandfather) was actually over 500 years older than Methuselah. It still has support to be the oldest , with Chilean researchers seeking to proove it. But so far Methuselah has yet to be toppled for the oldest spot.
Alternatively, a clonal forest of Populus tremuloides in Utah, known as Pando, could be as old as 14,000 years. The enormous forest—spanning 80 football fields according to National Geographic —is a collection of genetically identical stems which sprang from one single seed.
Studying and protecting these ancient trees and their tree rings can provide invaluable information about the climate throughout ancient history, which in turn can provide clues for protecting against the effects of climate change. Dubbed “faithful chroniclers of the world’s weather patterns,” we have a lot to learn from ancestral trees, be they South American conifers or weathered Californian pines.
Top image: Methuselah is the oldest named individual tree on Earth and is located in the White Mountains of California. Source: Yen Chao / CC BY-ND 2.0