Dennis Cassinelli: Great Basin’s bristlecone pine trees are oldest in the world
May 2, 2018
In the 1960s, family members and I often hunted deer in the Wheeler Peak area of White Pine County. This area has now become the Great Basin National Park. Knowing mule deer prefer the high ridges in the early part of the season, we climbed high up to find them. Near the top of the ridge we found ourselves in a grove of the incredible bristlecone pine trees. I thank the Great Basin National Park for the following information about bristlecone pines:
Bristlecone pines are said to be the oldest known living trees. They have many tricks that help them survive, like growing in twisted shapes at high altitude, and an adaptation called "sectored architecture." That means the tree has roots that feed only the part of the tree directly above them. If one root dies, only the section of the tree above it dies, and the rest of the tree keeps living. You'll often see bristlecone pines at high elevations with only one or two living sections, with strips of bark growing on an otherwise skeletal tree. Bristlecone pines can endure a lot.
In the summer of 1964, a geographer by the name of Donald Currey was doing research on ice age glaciology in the moraines of Wheeler Peak. He was granted permission from the U.S. Forest Service to take core samples from numerous bristlecone pines growing in a grove beneath Wheeler Peak, so he could try to find the age of the glacial features where the trees were growing. Currey was studying the different widths of the rings inside these bristlecone pines, which were believed to be over 4,000 years old, to determine patterns of good and bad growing seasons in the past. Because of their old age, these trees act as climatic vaults, storing thousands of years of weather data within their rings. This method of research is valuable to the study of climate change.
Currey found a tree in this grove he believed to be well over 4,000 years old. This tree was known by local mountaineers as Prometheus. There are several accounts of how Prometheus met its end. Some say Currey's increment borer, the tool used to take core samples, broke off inside the tree. Others say he didn't know how to core such a large tree, or the borer was too short. Yet others say Currey felt he needed a full cross section to better examine the rings of the tree.
Currey obtained permission from the Forest Service to have the tree cut down. Counting the rings later revealed Prometheus contained 4,862 growth rings. Due to the harsh conditions where these trees grow, it's likely a growth ring didn't form every year. Therefore, Prometheus was estimated to be 4,900 years old, the oldest known tree of its time. At the time, Prometheus was the oldest tree ever dated, the runner-up being a bristlecone pine in the White Mountains of California. It was only 4,847 years old. It wasn't until 2012 an older tree was found — another bristlecone in the same area, proved to be 5,065 years old. There's a good chance there are older bristlecone pines that haven't yet been dated.
According to ancient Greek myths, Prometheus was an immortal who brought fire to humans. Prometheus the bristlecone pine also imparted a lot of knowledge to humans. Information gained by studying this significant tree added to the knowledge of carbon dating, which is valuable to archeologists and paleontologists and the study of climate data. Bristlecone pines are now protected on federal lands.
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The stump of Prometheus is all that remains of the ancient tree within the grove. If you would like to travel through history by counting the rings of Prometheus, you can do so at the Great Basin Visitor Center. I had seen it when I worked for NDOT and stayed at the Nevada Hotel in Ely where it was on display before the National Park was opened. It had dates and markers on some of the tree rings that showed such events as when Christ was born, when Columbus discovered America and when the Pilgrims landed. Groves of Bristlecone pines can be found in Clark, Elko, Esmeralda, Lincoln, Nye, Mineral, and White Pine County where Prometheus lived.
This article is by Dayton author and historian Dennis Cassinelli, who can be contacted on his blog at denniscassinelli.com. All Dennis' books sold through this publication will be at a 50 percent discount plus $3 for each shipment for postage and packaging.