Prometheus and Methuselah


The mountains of California, Nevada, and Utah contain magical creatures.

These ancient beings live thousands of feet above sea level in unforgiving terrain. Sometimes, you might encounter one, a gnarled hermit, and suspect she is dead. Yet these presences are masters of survival; they have outlasted countless human civilizations; they have bested thousands of droughts, snowstorms, and the unceasing assault of the wind.

Pinus longaeva lives so long we added the attribute to their name. Ancient pines. Commonly, we call them the Great Basin bristlecone pine. These arboreal wonders are the oldest living, non-clonal organisms on our planet.

A bristlecone pine - photo by National Park Service

In 1957, scientists Edmund Schulman and Tom Harlan discovered a tree within Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest in the White Mountains of eastern California. This individual appeared to be older than any other in a grove of truly aged trees.

After they took a core sample of this tree, they named her Methuselah. The data showed she was the oldest tree on record: 4,789 years old! Her estimated germination occurred in 2833 BC. That date of birth means Methuselah was chilling on the slopes of the White Mountains for three centuries when the pyramids in Egypt started to be erected! Halfway to 10,000 years is far older than the Biblical character for which the tree is named, who hit 969 years.

As with our previous study of Hyperion, the world’s tallest known tree, scientists and park officials keep the exact location of Methuselah a secret to prevent nefarious people from harming her. 

Purported photo of Methuselah - Chao Yen

Methuselah’s spot atop the tree-age rankings did not last long.

By 1961, naturalists believed a grove of bristlecones in what would become Great Basin National Park might contain trees that could rival or surpass Methuselah. The scientists dubbed many of the trees, including one they called Prometheus. In the myth, Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gave it to man. They pegged Prometheus at around 4,850 years old, which would make her older than Methuselah. However, they only estimated the age; no physical evidence pointed to that age.

This point is where our tale turns into a tragedy.

In 1964, a graduate student named Donald Currey wanted to obtain information about the bristlecone pines. He obtained permission from the Forest Service to take cores of the trees in order to date them. Currey was purportedly unaware of other scientists previously surveying the trees in the Prometheus grove. What exactly happened has turned into mythology at this point. The somewhat official story is that two of Currey’s instruments broke while attempting to retrieve samples from Prometheus. He then requested permission from the Forest Service to cut the tree down. The officials from the Forest Service were supposedly unaware of the previous estimates of the age of Prometheus, thinking the tree was just one of many old specimens, but not something extraordinarily special.

The point man for the Forest Service, Donald Cox, later said, “I reported this tree was like many others and was not the type that the public would visit,” Cox wrote in his memo. “I felt that this tree’s best purpose would be to serve scientific and educational programs.”

You can see where the story goes next.

The remains of Prometheus - photo by James R. Bouldin

Currey received the go-ahead and brandished a chainsaw.

Prometheus came down; Currey and Cox entered dendrochronological donkeyhood on an epic level. When the cross-section of the tree arrived at a laboratory, the scientist discovered he had made a terrible error. He had not harvested a non-unique, run-of-the-mill example of a bristlecone. He had destroyed the world’s oldest tree.

Prometheus was older than Methuselah. And now it was gone. (Read the riveting long-form story from SFGate in the Further Reading and Exploration section below.) A true travesty.

Methuselah was back on top, albeit through unfortunate circumstances.

In 2012, Methuselah finally caught up to the age Prometheus reached before death. Big M is now 4,853 years old and sticking it to the elements.

Again, similarly to Hyperion, scientists likely know of older trees. The National Park Service wiggly cites a 2012 discovery of a tree that is 5,065 years old. They do not name the tree or its location. They give no information about it at all, most likely to protect it. We don’t need any more Prometheus situations.

According to Rocky Mountain Tree-Ring Research, Schulman cored another tree in 1957, alongside Methuselah, that remained uninvestigated because Schulman died unexpectedly in 1958. In 2009, Harlan started to explore the cores Schulman had left behind. Harlan claims one of the trees was 5,065 years old and still alive! However, Harlan himself subsequently died and the core sample cannot yet be located. Because corroborating evidence is currently outstanding, this new tree is not officially the oldest living organism. The evidence and/or reputation of Harlan must be good enough for the National Park Service to recognize the existence of this elder tree. Or everyone knows more than they let on!

Officially, however, Methuselah sits atop the list of geezer trees. May she easily reach 5,000 years! Long live Methuselah!

Further Reading and Exploration

Bristlecone Pines – National Park Service

The Prometheus Story – National Park Service

Staying Alive / High in California’s White Mountains grows the oldest living creature ever found – SFGate

Oldest Living Tree Tells All – Terrain

OLDLIST, A Database Of Old Trees – Rocky Mountain Tree-Ring Research

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