Is This Actually the World’s Oldest Tree? Skeptics and Supporters Weigh In

A tree called the Alerce Milenario, located in Chile’s Alerce Costero National Park, could be the world’s oldest living organism. Research by Jonathan Barichivich, a Chilean environmental scientist working in Paris, estimates that the conifer is over 5,000 years old. 

Barichivich drills in

Barichivich holds an MSc in Climate Change and a Ph.D. in Environmental Sciences from the world-renowned Climatic Research Unit (CRU) of the University of East Anglia, UK. He’s also a laureate of the Make Our Planet Great Again (MOPGA) program, created by the French government to find creative solutions for climate change.  

Some of the dendrochronologist’s work is available via Google Scholar.

For this particular test, he used a special drill to test the Alerce Milenario’s age. The drill removes narrow elements of wood without harming the tree.

His method showed an estimated 2,400 growth rings. Barichivich and his team deduced that the tree has an 80% chance of being about 5,484 years old. 

What kind of tree is it?

Part of the same botanical family as giant sequoias and redwoods, Alerces Milenario is a type of conifer. That puts it in the same rough category as Methuselah, the eastern California bristlecone pine widely thought to be the world’s oldest tree, with 4,853 growth rings. 

In 1993, Antonio Lara of the Austral University of Chile found an ancient alerce stump in southern Chile with 3,622 tree rings, similar to Alerce Milenario.

Who supports Barichivich’s claim?

Several academics are intrigued by Barichvich’s findings.

Harald Bugmann, a fellow dendrochronologist at ETH Zürich, said that the method used to determine the tree’s age was “a very smart approach”.

Others are more reserved. 

“The prospect is certainly exciting,” said Nathan Stephenson, an emeritus scientist at the U.S. Geological Survey. “[But] as a scientist, you want the peer-reviewed publication, with all of the down and dirty details.”

That lack of detail has made doubters of others.

Are there skeptics?

Barichivich informal findings do not include a complete count of growth rings, which some consider vital to accurately age any tree.

Ed Cook, a founding director of the Tree Ring Laboratory at Columbia University, delivered his opinion emphatically.

“The ONLY way to truly determine the age of a tree is by dendrochronologically counting the rings. That requires ALL rings being present or accounted for,” he concluded. 

Barichivich doesn’t mind the skepticism. “The alerce is the second-longest living species, so you would expect to see old trees,” he said. “My method is verified by studying [the full growth rings of] other trees.”

Ramzi Touchan of the University of Arizona’s Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research said that making assumptions about tree rings without actually counting them laves room for mistakes. As a young tree, it may have had less competition and grown faster than in later years, he argued, so inferences about a tree’s inner rings can be inaccurate.

Still, Barichivich said, “the alerce is where it should be on the exponential growth curve. It grows slower than the bristlecone pine, the oldest known tree, which indicates that it should live longer.” 

Barichivich will soon publish a full report on his findings.