The Prometheus Story

Bristlecone Pine

Bristlecone Pines can be thousands of years old


Destruction Leads to Preservation
In 1964, a scientist was granted permission by the United States Forest Service to study some of the bristlecone pines growing in a grove beneath Wheeler Peak. The researcher was studying the tree rings of these ancient trees, which were known to be over 4,000 years old. Bristlecone pines, like most trees, add a ring for each year of growth. Scientists can study the variation in width to determine patterns of good and bad growing seasons in past years. The trees literally record the seasons of their lives in their rings. This is very valuable for the study of climate change.

Bristlecone pines often grow in a twisted fashion and one section of the tree may die off several thousand years before another part, making it very difficult to capture the oldest part of the tree in a core sample. The Forest Service granted permission for the researcher to take core samples from several old-looking bristlecone pines and to cut one down to obtain a more accurate count. The tree the researcher selected to cut down was known as Prometheus.

Counting later revealed that Prometheus contained about 4,900 growth rings, making it the oldest living tree ever found. Today, the oldest known living tree, is a 4600 year old bristlecone pine in the White Mountains of California. Count the rings for yourself in the Great Basin Visitor Center! A new permanent exhibit was installed in 2007 featuring a tree ring that was taken from Prometheus in the 1960s.

Prometheus tree ring

Examine a cross section of Prometheus in the Great Basin Visitor Center


According to ancient Greek myths, Prometheus was an immortal who brought fire (symbolic of knowledge) to humans. Prometheus the bristlecone pine also imparted much 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 climate data.

These ancient trees are now protected on federal lands, in part due to the public outcry over the loss of Prometheus. The researcher responsible for cutting down the tree later became one of the strongest advocates for the creation of Great Basin National Park.

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