Great Grandfather – 5,484-Year-Old Patagonian Cypress Could Be World’s Oldest Tree

Scientists in Chile believe that an ancient Patagonian cypress known as ‘Gran Abuelo’ (Great Grandfather) could be over 5,000 years old, which would make it the world’s oldest living tree.

The Patagonian cypress (Fitzroya cupressoides), known in South America as ‘alerce’, is a conifer native to Chile and Argentina. They belong to the same family as giant sequoias and redwoods, and can reach heights of up to 45 meters (150ft). They grow at a very slow rate and are known to live for hundreds, even thousands of years, but one particular specimen may be the oldest tree ever discovered. If the findings of a Chilean team of researchers are to be believed, Great Grandfather, an ancient Patagonian cypress in the Alerce Costero national park, is 5,484-years-old, a whopping 600 years older than Methuselah, the current world’s oldest tree.

Photo: Yiyo Zamorano/Wikimedia Commons

Dr Jonathan Barichivich, a Chilean scientist at the Climate and Environmental Sciences Laboratory in Paris, recently released a study that suggests that Great Grandfather is the world’s oldest living tree. He used a combination of computer models and traditional methods to calculate the tree’s age, and found that it is nearly 5,500-years-old.

Barichivich, who claims that his grandfather discovered Great Grandfather in 1972, used to visit the tree as a child and was always fascinated by it. In 2020, during the Covid-19 pandemic, he traveled to Alerce Costero national park and used an increment borer to drill into the ancient Patagonian cypress without harming it. However, because the Alerce Milenatio has a four-meter-thick trunk, the tool couldn’t actually reach its core, so its growth rings could not be counted properly.


“My method is verified by studying other trees that you can obtain the full growth rings of, and it follows a biological law of growth-longevity trade-offs,” Dr Jonathan Barichivich told Newsweek. “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 it should live longer.”

“This method tells us that 80% of all possible growth trajectories give us an age of this living tree greater than 5,000 years,” Barichivich added. “There is only a 20% chance that the tree is younger.”


Although dendrochronologists are likely to be skeptical of Barichivich’s claim without a full growth ring count, some experts have already backed his method. Harald Bugmann, a dendrochronologist at ETH Zürich, told Science Magazine that Barichivich’s approach sounds “very smart’ and that he “fully trusts the analysis that Jonathan has made”.

If Jonathan Barichivich’s analysis is proven correct, Grand Grandfather would outstrip Methuselah, a 4,853-year-old bristlecone pine in California, of the title of ‘world’s oldest living tree’. Unfortunately, global warming and the fact that people are allowed to circle the Patagonian cypress and climb on its roots are threatening the survival of this ancient being. It is already considered very vulnerable, as only 28% of it is still actually alive.