The World’s Oldest Things

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Podcast Transcript

People are fascinated by extremes. We are interested in the biggest, strongest, fastest, and tallest. 

I’m certainly no exception. 

One of the things I’ve been fascinated with is the past, and in particular, very old things. Things which have withstood the test of time.

So, let’s learn more about the oldest things in the world, and even in the universe, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

We might as well start a discussion of old things with the oldest thing there is, the universe. 

In a previous episode, I discussed the age of the universe and how it has been determined.  They have used the Hubble Constant to determine the age of the universe, and the current estimate is that it is approximately 13.787 billion years old. 

I’ve previously done an entire episode explaining how the age of the universe is estimated, so I will refer you to that episode if you want to know more about how it is estimated. 

However, since that episode, new discoveries have been made from the James Webb Telescope. It has discovered galaxies that are far older than should be possible. They have observed galaxies that would have to have been formed only 300 million years after the big bag, yet display features that would make the galaxy several billion years old. 

A star in our galaxy known as HD 140283, also known as the Methuselah star, has been dated to be older than the universe, which is obviously impossible. 

This has caused some astrophysicists to challenge the accepted age for the universe, and they are now estimating that it might be as old as 26.7 billion years old, almost twice as old as we previously thought. 

This is going to be a very active field over the next several years as more and better data is gathered from more and better astronomical instruments. As we gather more data, better explanations will be required to explain the observations, which should give us a more accurate estimate of the age of the universe. 

In talking about old things, let’s get a little bit closer to home. How old is the oldest rock in the world? 

There are only a few places on Earth where the oldest rocks from the original formation of the Earth can be found. Canada, Australia, and parts of Africa, mostly in Ethiopia. 

The current record for the oldest rock on Earth comes from the Northwest Territories in Canada. Discovered in 1999, it has been radiometrically dated to be 4.031 billion years old. There was also a rock sample taken from the Apollo 14 mission, which had a piece of rock that was believed to have come from Earth and was dated to a similar age.

However, these rocks are not the oldest things on Earth. The Murchison Meteorite, which fell near Murchison, Victoria, Australia in 1969, has been dated to be 7 billion years old. Far older than the Earth itself. 

I’ve also done a previous episode on radiometric dating, which gives a more detailed explanation as to exactly how rocks can be dated with accuracy.

So, sure, rocks are old, but what about things that are living? 

This is much harder to determine because there are certain organisms that do not appear to age. They reach maturity and then just seem to keep going with no apparent signs of change. Some organisms even revert back to an earlier stage of life and do this in a cycle. 

So, it is entirely probable there is something out there that is really old, but we would have no way of knowing. The list of the oldest living things is in some cases, an estimate, and in a few cases, can be verified. 

The oldest type of lifeform that we can be reasonably sure of are colonial lifeforms. Colonial lifeforms appear to have multiple lifeforms, but in reality are usually just one under the surface. 

Just off the coast of the island of Formentera, one of Spain’s Balearic Islands in the Mediterranean, is a colony of Posidonia oceanica, a type of seagrass. Each blade of grass is a part of the same organism, which is connected below the seafloor. 

Estimates place the age of the colony at approximately 200,000 years old.

Another colonial lifeform is aspen trees. Aspen trees are all clones of each other, and a grove of aspen trees are all one single lifeform. The oldest grove of aspen trees is the Trembling Giant in Utah, which consists of almost 50,000 quaking aspen trees.

It has an estimated age of 80,000 years. 

Colonial organisms aren’t what we usually think of when we think of something alive. We usually think of a single organism. 

If we look at a single organism, then the oldest are probably Antarctic volcano sponges. They grow in the cold waters off the coast of Antarctica and have an incredibly slow rate of growth. However, given the size of some of them, the largest are believed to be as much as 15,000 years old.

For a single plant, we have to turn to the Great Basin bristlecone pine. Bristlecone pines are scraggly, long-lived trees that grow in the mountains in the American West. The oldest of the trees live in the arid Great Basin of Utah, Nevada, and Eastern California.

The oldest tree ever found is known as the Methuselah tree, which is believed to be 4,800 years old and is located in the mountains of eastern California. The location of the tree is kept hidden so no one harms it.

The oldest tree whose age can be verified because it was planted by humans, would be the Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi tree in Sri Lanka. It was planted from a cutting from the original tree, under which it is believed the Buddha received enlightenment. It was planted approximately 2,300 years ago.

There is a rose bush that was planted alongside the cathedral in Hildesheim, Germany. The bush has been flowering ever since it was planted in the year 815.

What about animals? Something a bit more complicated than a sponge. 

A clam harvested off the coast of Iceland in 2006 was estimated to be 506 years old. 

The Greenland Shark, which lives in the cold waters of the North Atlantic, is believed to have a lifespan somewhere between 250 to 500 years. It is the vertebrate species with the longest lifespan. This is based on samples that have been captured. In some cases, the same shark was captured decades apart.  

The longest-lived mammal is believed to be the bowhead whale. Specimens have been found that were believed to be somewhere between 200 to 250 years old. 

The longest-lived land animal that can be verified is a Seychelles Tortoise by the name of Johnathan. Jonathan was born in 1832 and was moved to the island of St. Helena in 1882. 

Jonathan is still alive today, and I actually met him when I visited Saint Helena.  

A Major Mitchel’s cockatoo named Cookie lived to the age of 83 and passed away in 2016.  There is a Laysan albatross that was first tagged on Midway Island in 1956 and is still laying eggs as of 2020. 

The oldest house cat ever was named Cream Puff and lived to be 38 years old. The oldest dog was an Australian sheepdog who lived to the age of 29. The oldest chimpanzee lived to the age of 80, and the oldest horse lived to the age of 62. 

What about people?

I previously did an episode on Jeanne Calment, the woman who claimed to have lived to the age of 122. However, there is doubt as to her claim, and she really may only have been 102 at the time of her death. 

Outside of her, the oldest human ever recorded was Kane Tanaka, who passed away in April 2022 at the age of 119.

While individuals have lived well over the age of 100, evidence of humanity dates back much further. 

The oldest hominid fossil, something that can reasonably be considered to be an ancestor of modern humans, is a judgment call. It all depends on where you want to draw the line. The absolute earliest fossil that can be considered hominid comes from a species known as Sahelanthropus tchadensis. A cranium skull fossil was discovered in northern Chad in 2002 and is believed to be approximately 7 million years old.

The oldest stone tools were found near Lake Turkana in Kenya, and they date back about 3.5 million years. They are actually older than modern humans. 

The oldest examples of human art date back about 73,000 years. Samples of ocher were found on cave walls in Blombos Cave near Cape Town, South Africa. There are examples of human handprints that have been found in limestone in Tibet that may date back as far as 200,000.

The oldest human construction, something that would be an edifice or a building, that we currently know of would be Göbekli Tepe in Turkey, on which I’ve done a previous episode. It dates back as far as 11,500 years.

The oldest city in the world is again a matter of definition. However, the oldest walled city that we know of is the city of Jericho, located in the Palestinian West Bank. It is still inhabited today and may have been founded as early as 9000 years ago.

The oldest sample of a written language comes from the Kish tablet in Mesopotamia. It came from the Sumerian civilization and is written in cuneiform. It is believed to be about 5,300 years old. 

Almost all ancient ruins are made out of stone and brick because anything made out of wood seldom survives. The oldest wooden building in the world is the Horyuji Temple in Japan. It was first built in the year 607 and was destroyed by fire. It was rebuilt in 670, and that version of the temple is what still exists today. 

I actually visited Horyuji when I traveled from Kyoto to Nara. Not many people know to visit it, but it was one of the highlights of my time in Japan. 

The printing press revolutionized the world. The two oldest printing pressings in existence can both be found at the Museum Plantin-Moretus in Antwerp, Belgium. Both presses were built around the year 1600. 

The oldest university in the world that is still operating is the University of Bologna in Italy. It opened its doors in the year 1180. 

The oldest company in the world, which has been in continuous operation, is the Kong? Gumi construction company in Japan. It was founded in 574 until it was sold to the Takamatsu Construction Group in January 2006, of which it is now a subsidiary. 

There have also been surprising longevity feats in the realm of technology. 

The longest-functioning light bulb has been operating continuously since 1901 at Fire Station #6 in Livermore, California. The bulb currently only uses about 4 watts of electricity and has been on almost continuously since it was first installed. 

The oldest functioning computer is the Harwell computer, located in Harwell, England. It was built in 1952 and decommissioned in 1973. However, it was later refurbished and now still functions and is used to perform demonstrations at the British National Museum of Computing. 

It weighs 2.5 metric tons and has computing power less than pretty much anything you will ever encounter in your life with a process in it. 

I should end with the newest thing on this episode, but the one that is probably the most relevant. The world’s oldest podcast. 

The longest operating podcast, which is still being produced today, is Open Source, with the host Chris Lydon. It began in 2003 and was based on a radio program and recently celebrated its 20th anniversary.

This is, of course, just a sampling of some of the oldest things in the world, and I could probably do several more episodes with notable accomplishments of longevity.