A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
By reading the rings of pines as old as the earliest pharaohs, Henry Michael has changed the way we look at the past.
On a rounded ridge in the Inyo National Forest, east of the Sierra Nevada
and west of Nevada's parched deserts, are high-altitude slopes where the
thin air makes your head spin and the trees seem to live forever. This is
the home of the oldest bristlecone pine trees in the White Mountains of
east-central California. Before Giza and the ziggurat of Ur, the trees in
this grove were stubborn, thriving seedlings. Here, where the growing
season is 45 days long and it rains barely ten inches a year, there are 200
trees more than 3,000 years old, and two dozen more than 4,000 years old.
Here reigns Methuselah, the world's oldest living tree, which sprouted
around 2700 B.C.
Discreetly out of sight, behind branches and on fallen trunks, are shiny
metal tags with numbers and dates, foil strips attached to the trees by the
scientists who study them. Most numerous are those with an "H." These are
the tags of Henry Michael of the University of Pennsylvania's Museum
Applied Science Center for Archaeology.
Almost every summer for more than 30 years, in a square-mile swath of
forest, Michael dug out long-buried logs and took cores from standing
trunks, taking home samples thousands of years old. With these bits of aged
wood he helped build a tree-ring chronicle of Earth's ever-changing
environment and a yardstick by which radiocarbon dating, then in its
infancy, could be calibrated, with results that forced archaeologists to
rethink their theories about the spread of civilization.
A self-effacing man with a dry sense of humor, Michael has a high forehead,
bright blue eyes, and a wide, square face. Although his step has slowed and
he has a slight stoop, there's little else in his appearance to suggest
he's nearing 90. He has the sturdy build of someone who has spent decades
hiking in the mountains and hefting logs, and when he speaks it is with the
methodical pace of a man who makes meticulous measurements. True, he wears
broad glasses and sometimes a hearing aid, but if names of old colleagues
occasionally elude him, he retains the tenacity of spirit that helped
rewrite the history of prehistoric Europe.
Tom Gidwitz is a freelance writer currently working on a book about volcanoes.