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The Norwegian Spruce Old Tjikko is 9,550 years old, according to radiocarbon dating of roots

Stefan Andrews

The oldest trees in the world are usually not the most beautiful looking on our planet. That is true for the bristlecone pines that sprout in the western United States and are often acknowledged as being the world’s most ancient continuously standing trees. Same goes for the lonesome Old Tjikko, the Norwegian spruce that grows high in the remote mountains of Sweden’s Dalarna Province. Radio-carbon dating done on this tree’s ancient roots has pointed to a flabbergasting figure: the first roots of Old Tjikko existed about 9,550 years ago.

If the math is done right, Old Tjikko is roughly 4,485 years older than one of the oldest known bristlecone pines, which according to the National Park Service was found to be some 5,065 years old; its age was calculated by counting the tree rings formed after each year of its growth. But with the Norwegian spruce on the other side of the Atlantic, experts sought the answer while analyzing the roots instead of the trunk.

Old Tijko

Old Tijko

Discovered in 2004, Old Tjikko belongs to a species that is the traditional Christmas tree choice around Europe. The results from the radiocarbon dating of its roots were revealed in 2008. The team studied the Norwegian spruce within a wider effort to seek answers of how this species started colonizing Sweden, and they have identified more samples of this species aged up to 6,000 years. But all glory goes to Old Tjikko, a 13-foot-tall spruce whose root systems kicked off back when the British Isles were probably still attached to the continent. Umeå University geography professor Leif Kullman, who discovered the ancient tree and led the research team, was also the one to give the tree it’s name, “Old Tjikko,” after his dog that died.

Old Tjikko, the oldest Norwegian spruce in the world. Photo:Karl Brodowsky -CC BY-SA 3.0

Old Tjikko, the oldest Norwegian spruce in the world. Photo:Karl Brodowsky -CC BY-SA 3.0

As impossible as the age of the tree might sound, Old Tjikko would have put down its first roots as the last Ice Age came to an end. It was when sea levels were as much as 390 feet lower than today, and when winds and low temperatures made the growth of Old Tjikko similar to a shrub. Under such harsh conditions, a large tree could not sustain the growth necessary to get this old, but the principal reason for its survival over such a lengthy period is due to vegetative cloning.

Trees Speak A Language We Can Learn

As National Geographic reports, it is not the portion of the tree that we can see on the surface that is long-lived, that part is relatively young. It is the extremely old root system, which has regenerated itself for the last nine and a half millennia. Kullman affirmed that the tree’s longevity is because of its self-cloning ability, and while the stems and trunk of the spruce may have a normal life of about six centuries, “as soon as a stem dies, a new one emerges from the same root stock,” which accounts to the fantastic life-span of the tree.

Old Tijkko 2011 Photo:Karl Brodowsky -CC BY-SA 3.0

Old Tijkko 2011 Photo:Karl Brodowsky -CC BY-SA 3.0

The same study findings on the Norwegian spruce opened more questions at the time. For instance, exactly when this particular type of spruce started sprouting on Swedish territory. Previous considerations were that the migration took place 2 millennia ago, but given the age of Old Tjikko, that part of the textbooks need to be rewritten, Kullman said. The study also questioned how the deglaciation processes in the region looked when the last Ice Age came to its end. Glacier melting could have commenced way earlier than previously believed, or maybe it was just that ice sheets were not so thick after all.

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A rare plant relic from the last Ice Age, Old Tjikko is here to remind us of the amazing resilience of some species on earth, and their unique relationship to the ever-changing climate and ever-evolving eco-systems around. Or, we could just simply share our awe at the fact that Old Tjikko’s growth period began around 7550 B.C. As a contrast, to give an appreciation of just how old this is, humanity didn’t begin to write until 4,000 B.C.