Quantifying carbon dynamics in forests is critical for understanding their role in long-term climate regulation1,2,3,4. Yet little is known about tree longevity in tropical forests3,5,6,7,8, a factor that is vital for estimating carbon persistence3,4. Here we calculate mean carbon age (the period that carbon is fixed in trees7) in different strata of African tropical forests using (1) growth-ring records with a unique timestamp accurately demarcating 66 years of growth in one site and (2) measurements of diameter increments from the African Tropical Rainforest Observation Network (23 sites). We find that in spite of their much smaller size, in understory trees mean carbon age (74 years) is greater than in sub-canopy (54 years) and canopy (57 years) trees and similar to carbon age in emergent trees (66 years). The remarkable carbon longevity in the understory results from slow and aperiodic growth as an adaptation to limited resource availability9,10,11. Our analysis also reveals that while the understory represents a small share (11%) of the carbon stock12,13, it contributes disproportionally to the forest carbon sink (20%). We conclude that accounting for the diversity of carbon age and carbon sequestration among different forest strata is critical for effective conservation management14,15,16 and for accurate modelling of carbon cycling4.