The Prometheus Story

Bristlecone pine
Bristlecone pines can live to be over 5,000 years old.


Bristlecone pines are said to be the oldest known living trees. They often grow in a twisted fashion at high altitudes. These trees also have sectored architecture, which means that sections of the tree are supported by big roots. These roots feed only the sections of tree directly above them. As one root dies off due to exposure through soil erosion, only the sector of tree above that
root dies. It is common at high elevations to see bristlecone pines with only one or two living sectors, defined by a strip of bark.

In the summer of 1964, a geographer by the name of Donald R. Currey was doing research on ice age glaciology in the moraines of Wheeler Peak. He was granted permission from the United States Forest Service to take core samples from numerous bristlecone pines growing in a grove beneath Wheeler Peak to try and age the glacial features these ancient trees grow on. Currey was studying the variations in width of the rings of bristlecone pine trees, which were believed to be over 4,000 years old, to determine patterns of good and bad growing seasons in the past. Due to 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 in the tree. Others say he did not know how to core such a large tree, or that the borer was too short. Yet others say Currey felt he needed a full cross section to better examine the rings of the tree.We may never know the true story of what happened to Prometheus, but we do know one thing for certain; Currey had permission from the Forest Service to have the tree cut down. Counting the rings later revealed that Prometheus contained 4,862 growth rings. Due to the harsh conditions these trees grow in, it is likely that a growth ring did not form every year. Because of this, Prometheus was estimated at being 4,900 years old, the oldest known tree of its time. After the death of Prometheus, the oldest known living tree was a 4,847 year old bristlecone pine found in the White Mountains of California. It wasn't until 2012 when another bristlecone from the same area proved to be 5,065 years old. There is a good chance there are older bristlecone pines that have not yet been dated.

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. Bristlecone pines are now protected on federal lands.

The stump of Prometheus is all that remains of the ancient giant 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 National Park visitor center.

Prometheus slab
Prometheus slab at the Great Basin Visitors Center.


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