Sunday, 20 April 2008

The world's most ancient tree

The world's oldest tree has been discovered, in Sweden.

The tree is a spruce that first grew at end of the last ice age, more than 9,500 years ago. It was discovered in the Fulu Mountains, Dalarna, in central Sweden and is among a cluster of trees that have been carbon dated to over 8,000 years old.

Swedish scientists from Umea University believe that the trees have managed to survive for so long because every winter the snow pushes low-lying branches into the ground where they take root. Although the original mother trunk may die, the branches form new trunks that are genetically the same tree.

Ancient trees appear in many culture's mythologies and are often colossal, with their branches supporting the heavens, their trunk in the realm of the Earth and their roots in the underworld.

Yggdrasil is the World Tree in Norse mythology. It is a giant ash that links all the worlds. In the folklore of Siberia, the World Tree is also the symbol of Mother Earth who gave the Samoyed shaman a magical drum and helped him travel from one world to another.

World trees also feature in ancient South American mythology, where they embody the four cardinal directions as well as linking the sky and the ground.

No one is suggesting that the elderly spruces found in Sweden represent anything quite so mythic, but there is evidence that these trees were highly valued by our ancient ancestors. Scientists believe the original saplings may have been transported some distance and deliberately planted. Trees would have been in very short supply supply and their wood would have been vital for survival.

It is easy to understand why fabulous stories were told about them around fires of crackling pine cones on cold nights.

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