Prometheus (aka WPN-114) was the oldest known non-clonal organism, a Great Basin Bristlecone Pine (Pinus longaeva) tree growing near the tree line on Wheeler Peak in eastern Nevada, United States. The tree, which was at least 4862 years old and possibly more than 5000 years, was cut down in 1964 by a graduate student and United States Forest Service personnel for research purposes. The people involved did not know of its world-record age before the cutting (see below). However, the circumstances and decision-making process leading to the felling of the tree remain controversial; not all of the basic facts are agreed upon by all involved. The name of the tree refers to the mythological figure Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods and gave it to man. The designation WPN-114 was given by the original researcher, Donald Rusk Currey, and refers to the 114th tree sampled by him for his research in Nevada's White Pine County.
About the tree 
Prometheus was a living member of a population of bristlecone pine trees growing near the tree line on the lateral moraine of a former glacier on Wheeler Peak, in Great Basin National Park, eastern Nevada. Wheeler Peak is the highest mountain in the Snake Range, and the highest mountain entirely within the state of Nevada. The bristlecone pine population on this mountain is divided into at least two distinct sub-populations, one of which is accessible by a popular interpretive trail. Prometheus, however, grew in an area reachable only by off-trail hiking. In either 1958 or 1961, a group of naturalists who admired the grove in which the tree grew gave names to a number of the largest or most distinctive trees, including Prometheus.
Currey originally aged the tree at, minimally, 4844 years. A few years later, this was increased to 4862 years by Donald Graybill of the University of Arizona's Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research. However, these ring counts were done on a trunk cross section taken about 2.5 m (8 feet) above the original germination point of the tree, because the innermost rings were missing below that point. Adjusting Graybill's figure of 4862 by adding in the estimated number of years required to reach this height, plus a correction for the estimated number of missing rings (which are not uncommon in trees growing at the tree line), it is probable that the tree was at least 5000 years old when felled. This makes it the oldest unitary (i.e. non-clonal) organism ever discovered, exceeding even the Methuselah tree of the White Mountains' Schulman Grove, in California by two to three hundred years.
Whether Prometheus should be considered the oldest organism ever known depends on the definition of "oldest" and "organism". Certain sprouting (clonal) organisms, such as creosote bush or aspen, may have older individuals if the entire clonal organism is considered. Under this standard, the oldest living organism is a grove of quaking aspens in Utah known as Pando, at perhaps as much as 80,000 years old. However, in a clonal organism the individual clonal stems are nowhere near as old, and no part of the organism at any given point in time is particularly old. Prometheus was thus the oldest non-clonal organism yet discovered, with its innermost, extant rings exceeding 4862 years of age.
The cutting of the tree 
In the 1950s dendrochronologists were making active efforts at finding the oldest living tree species, in order to use the analysis of the rings for various research purposes, such as the evaluation of former climates, the dating of archaeological ruins, and addressing the basic scientific question of maximum potential lifespan. Bristlecone pines in the White Mountains of California and elsewhere were discovered by Edward Schulman to be older than any species yet discovered. This spurred interest in finding very old bristlecones, possibly older than the Methuselah tree, aged by Schulman in 1957 at over 4700 years.
Donald R. Currey was a graduate student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill studying the climate dynamics of the Little Ice Age using dendrochronology techniques. In 1963 he became aware of the bristlecone populations in the Snake Range in general, and on Wheeler Peak in particular. Based on the size, growth rate and growth forms of some of the trees he became convinced that some very old specimens existed on the mountain, cored some of them, and found trees exceeding 3,000 years old. However, Currey was not able to obtain a continuous series of overlapping cores from WPN-114. Here, stories diverge. It is not clear whether Currey requested, or Forest Service personnel suggested, that he cut down and section the tree in lieu of being able to core it. There is also some uncertainty as to why a core sample could not be obtained. One version has it that he broke or lodged his only long increment borer and could not obtain another before the end of the field season, another claims he broke two of them, while another implies that a core sample was too difficult to obtain and also would not provide as much definitive information as a full cross section of the tree would.
In addition, there are conflicting views over Prometheus being unique in the Wheeler Peak grove. It is reported that Currey and/or the Forest Service personnel who authorized the cutting believed the tree was just one of many large, very old trees in the grove. Others, at least one of whom was involved in the decision-making and tree cutting, believe that the tree was clearly unique — obviously older than other trees in the area. At least one person involved says that Currey knew this to be true at the time, although there is no known admission from Currey himself that he knew this, and others have disputed that the tree, based on observation alone, was obviously much older than the others.
Another uncertainty is that it is not clear why the felling of such an old tree was necessary given the topic Currey was studying. Since the Little Ice Age started no more than 600 years ago, many trees could presumably have provided the information he was seeking for that time period. However, in Currey's original report in the journal Ecology (Currey, 1965) he refers to the Little Ice Age as encompassing the period from 2000 BC to the present, thus defining the Age over a much longer time period than is currently accepted. Whether this was the common sentiment at the time is not known. In the article, Currey indicates that he sectioned the tree as much from the question of whether the oldest bristlecones were necessarily confined to California's White Mountains (as some dendrochronologists had been claiming) as from its usefulness in regard to studies of the Little Ice Age.
Whatever the rationale, the tree was cut down and sectioned in August 1964, and several pieces of the sections hauled out to be processed and analyzed, first by Currey, then by others in later years. Sections, or pieces of sections have ended up in various places, some of which are publicly accessible, including the Great Basin National Park visitor center (Baker, Nevada), the Ely Convention Center (Ely, Nevada), the University of Arizona Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research (Tucson, Arizona), and the US Forest Service's Institute of Forest Genetics (Placerville, California).
It has been argued that the cutting down of Prometheus was an important factor in the movement to protect bristlecones in general, and the Wheeler Peak groves in particular. There had been a movement to protect the mountain and contiguous areas in a national park before the incident, and 22 years later the area gained national park status.
See also 
- Currey, DR (1965). "An Ancient Bristlecone Pine Stand in Eastern Nevada (subscription required". Ecology 46 (4): 564–6. doi:10.2307/1934900. JSTOR 1934900.
- Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound
- "Oldest Living Tree Tells All", Michael Cohen, Terrain.org.
- Swedish spruce may be world's oldest living tree|Science|Reuters
- "Be Careful What You Plan For", Radiolab, June 28, 2010.
- "Staying Alive", Carl Hall, San Francisco Chronicle, August 23, 1998.
- "The Martyred One", Leonard Miller, The Bristlecone Site.
- Radiolab, WNYC, 2010-09-03.
- Hitch, Charles J. 1982. Dendrochronology and Serendipity. American Scientist 70(3): 300–05.
- Kelsey, Michael R. 1999. Hiking and Climbing in the Great Basin National Park: A Guide to Nevada's Wheeler Peak, Mt. Moriah and the Snake Range. Kelsey Publishing, Salt Lake City, UT. ISBN 0-9605824-8-7. Contains a map showing the approximate location of the tree on Wheeler Peak, as does another of Kelsey's books, Mountains of the World.
- Lambert, Darwin. 1991. Great Basin Drama: The Story of a National Park. Roberts-Rinehart Publishers. ISBN 0-911797-95-5 Coordinates: