The Oldest Living Thing To Ever Be Killed By A Human

“Old age isnโ€™t so bad when you consider the alternative.” โ€”Maurice-Auguste Chevalier

In A Nutshell

In 1964, a bristlecone pine tree was cut down in Nevada in the name of scientific research. After counting the rings several times it was determined to be the oldest tree found on earth. Incidentally it had been alive when cut down, and an emotional and political storm followed.

The Whole Bushel

In 1964, Donald Currey was looking for evidence concerning the “Little Ice Age,” a period of time between approximately the years 1300 and 1800 where the Earth’s temperature presumably dropped slightly, reaching its lowest point sometime in the 1600s. He was hoping to find a tree that had lived through this entire period so that he could study its growth rings. He got much more than he bargained for.

He located a tree in what is now Great Basin National Park in Nevada and decided to use a Swedish tree-coring tool to take a sample. However, the wood was quite dense, and the tree was large, and at some point he got his coring tool stuck. Too stuck to get out . . . without a chainsaw.

So he asked the Forest Service District Ranger if he could cut it down. At this point, nobody knew how old these trees really were. They were living in a harsh climate, had grown slowly and laboriously, and the tree he was asking about was a gnarled, beaten-looking tree, appearing somewhat puny at only five meters (17 ft) tall. The District Ranger checked with his superior to make sure it was okay and, after getting permission, went with Currey to help him cut it down.

After laboriously cutting down, chopping up, and hiking out pieces of the tree, the real work began—counting the rings. When he had counted them all (more than once, just to be sure), it appeared that the tree was over 5,000 years old. At the time, this made it the oldest known tree in the world. And he had killed it.

Unbeknownst to him at the time of the cutting, there were actually a small group of people who loved the trees in the stand from which he had cut . . . and they had even named them. The tree he cut down was named Prometheus, and the cutting of Prometheus became a powerful symbol in an ensuing battle over whether science is worth the cost of the resources it destroys.

The media and public went to town with accusations. Politicians got involved. Different agencies responsible for the natural resources of the area blamed each other. Local newsman Darwin Lambert wrote a paper titled “Martyr for a Species.” Words such as “murder” and “rape” were thrown around carelessly. But ultimately, nothing was decided, and the world eventually moved on.

It is now estimated that the tree was closer to 4,800 years old rather than the original guess of more than 5,000. It’s not as easy as just counting the rings because a new ring is not necessarily produced every year. Just think: We might never have known about it at all if Donald Currey hadn’t gotten the Forest Service to cut it down.

Show Me The Proof

Radiolab: Be Careful What You Plan For
Oldest Living Tree Tells All

  • Sender

    Now I will hunt and slay the immortal jellyfish to best him

  • Joseph

    It’s kind of pointless to point out the tree was alive when it was cut down. I’ve never heard of someone waiting for the tree to die of old age first. Why would someone name a tree?

    • Liege_Lord

      Yes, sometimes a tree dies and needs to be cut down, you have never heard of cutting down dead trees? And yes, people name trees because they are alive and impressive forms of live; hell, why not name a tree? People name their guitars, swords, even genitals, why is naming a living tree weirder than that?

      • sandy

        Well said and I completely agree with you sir. Thanks for the wonderful message ๐Ÿ™‚

      • Joseph

        Naming those other things is stupid too.

        • Guest

          naming those other things is… comedic delivery?

          • Joseph

            I don’t know what that means. I find no comedic value in naming a guitar. It’s a tree, I don’t care. They could have made paper out of it and set the paper on fire for a laugh and I wouldn’t care because it’s a tree.

          • mike

            And people like you are the reason why humans are a failed species.

          • Joseph

            I’m pretty sure we don’t agree on the definition of failed… but, ok.

        • Julia Crawford

          the people that named the tree respected it. It is not stupid to respect living things. You can feel indifferent to other living things because It doesn’t matter really, it was simply a tree. However, to not understand why people have respect for other living things is in itself, kinda stupid.

          • Joseph

            I have respect for other living humans. I don’t care about trees. Maybe that’s wrong, maybe that makes you a better person than me. It’s just the way I feel. I would be sad if something happened to you (I don’t know how I’d find out) but, you’re a human. Reading about a tree getting cut down or the people that cared for the tree doesn’t effect me at all.

    • D34THLY 3V1L 2

      Why not is the true question.

      • Joseph

        I’m not sure which part your question refers to but, I like paper and I can’t play fetch with a tree. Actually, I’m not even sure there’s a reason to name a dog. At least a dog responds to it’s name.

    • Box

      Why would someone name a cat? Oh yeah, cats are people too.

      • Joseph

        Is this a joke?

  • Brp Goyo

    Cutting a really old tree? Man was he tree-ping?! OOOOOOOOOOOOOH YEAAAAAAAAAH xD

    • love it

      • Luciano Gianola

        I got tree tings ta say to you, mon:
        I tink da mon just didden know any betta.
        Wo’k on yo’ tree puns.
        Dis was a lot of effat for a Jamecan play on wo’ds.

        • Brp Goyo

          You want to meet and chat over some root beer? xD

          • Luciano Gianola

            Woop, I totally replied to a random person instead of you.
            Sorry, not a fan of root beer.

          • Brp Goyo

            Don’t leaves me hanging xD

  • John End

    I don’t see the problem. So what it was old. So what if it were a million years old. It’s one single tree. Stupid hippies.

    • Limesy

      That’s like saying that, because you don’t know how to properly use punctuation (which you obviously don’t), that no one should care about you, the words you say, or the actions you partake in as a human being.

      Which, no one does…

      Hmm, maybe you are on to something here…

      • John End

        My punctuation sucks, so this tree gets to live? Only idiots use ad-hominem arguments. Idiot. Go hug a tree you dirty hippie!

        • Limesy

          No, only idiots make life choice assumptions of other people based upon comments on a fact-based website. And if you read carefully, simple one, you will notice I made no correlation between the tree living and your punctuation; rather towards the age of the tree, your “thoughts” on this, and your punctuation.

          Did you get all that?

          • John End

            Calm down bro, it’s just a tree! Hahaha

          • Limesy

            Well, it was…


      Is this English??

  • inconspicuous detective

    i don’t like it but what’s the alternative? just don’t do it constantly and i don’t see a problem…though it is sad that something so old had to die. just think if it could talk, what it would have seen?

    • Some Dude

      So deep.

      • inconspicuous detective

        you’re like my pet haha

        • Limesy

          That’s weird.

          • inconspicuous detective

            he follows me around on here trying to troll me, so i guess one could call him my bitch. hence, my pet.

    • Luciano Gianola

      It’s a tree surrounded by other trees in the middle of the woods, so probably not much notable.

      • John End

        That’s funny.

      • Valkyrie

        It may have been the only tree there for a few thousand years though …

  • austkr

    great read!

  • Kimberly Grace

    I wonder if all the controversy made him want to branch out into another field of science, it wood for me.