What if we could go back into time and find out how earth was like millions of years ago? Turns out that a fossil of a 16-million-year-old tree at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History let's us do just that. 

Paleobotanist Scott Wing describes the ancient slab of sequoia as the keystone to consideration of time. He said each yearly delineation on the sequoia’s surface is a small part of a far grander story that ties together all of life on Earth. This clock of ‘Deep Time’ flows back to the origins of the universe, the formation of Earth, the evolution of all life up through to this present moment.

Talking about the tree, Wing admits they are unclear about how it got to Smithsonian. He says tree’s backstory identifies to a massive tree that grew in what’s now central Oregon about 16 million years ago. Wing said the tree was once a ‘long-lived part of true forest primeval’. “Its rings offers different ways to think about time. Given that the sequoia grew seasonally, each ring marks the passage of another year, and visitors can look at the approximately 260 delineations and think about what such a time span represents.”

Trees A view through a canopy of trees in full fall color Oct. 24, 2015 along Skyline drive in Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. Photo: Getty Images

For hundreds of years, scientists have been trying to decode time through trees that complete some of Earth’s most rich and diverse ecosystems. Moreover, some trees have lived through centuries because they have tricks for surviving adverse weather and climates. Scientists have found that plants and trees actually block communication between the cells and sleep through harsh winters.

Wings revealed that despite the slab’s ancient age, some of the original organic material is still locked inside.

This tree was alive, photosynthesizing, pulling carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, turning it into sugars and into lignin and cellulose to make cell walls.” Wings said after the tree perished, water carrying silica and other minerals coated the log to preserve the wood and protect some of those organic components inside. He said that the carbon atoms that came out of the atmosphere, 16 million years ago, are also locked in it.