If true, it means this tree in South America was starting its life around the time that the area now known as the Sahara Desert was beginning to turn from savannah to sand, and pictographic proto-writing started developing towards writing proper in Sumer, thus starting what is technically considered “history.”
High on a ridge in California’s Eastern Sierra, a gnarled bristlecone pine known as Methuselah has reigned over almost five millennia’s worth of snowy winters and blazing summers. Methuselah, whose crooked and weather-beaten boughs make it look more like a sculpture than a living thing, is estimated to be 4,853 years old, based on data from a core sample taken in 1957—making it the oldest tree in the world.
Until now. This year, an upstart competitor has appeared to challenge California’s grizzly old-timer. Nicknamed Alerce Milenario, or Gran Abuelo, which means great grandfather in Spanish, it sits in a humid valley outside La Unión, Chile. As reported in Science in May, researcher Jonathan Barichivich says new data suggest the tree might hold a new record: 5,484 years old. (That record excludes clonal trees that share root systems, like aspen colonies, Science specified. In the search for the oldest tree, scientists focus on individuals with just one trunk.)
Gran Abuelo is an alerce, or Patagonian cypress, a type of conifer related to giant sequoias and coast redwoods. Like their Californian cousins, alerces can grow to very old age; at least one other alerce in southern Chile has been dated at 3,600 years old. That makes the species the second longest-lived in the world—older than sequoias but not quite at the bristlecone pine level. And Barichivich knows alerces well. He grew up around them, including Gran Abuelo, since his grandfather and mother both worked as rangers in the park where Gran Abuelo grows. He says his grandfather discovered the tree around 1972. “It’s a tree that’s very, very close to our hearts,” he told Science.