L.A. celebrates century of Ice Age fossil finds in La Brea Tar Pits
LOS ANGELES — In the middle of a thriving area of Los Angeles office buildings, apartments and restaurants is a gooey graveyard of prehistoric beasts where a small crew diligently wades through a backlog of fossils found in the La Brea Tar Pits.
Digs that started a century ago on Monday have unearthed bones of mammoths, mastodons, saber-toothed cats, dire wolves and other unsuspecting Ice Age creatures that became trapped in ponds of asphalt.
In 1913, the predecessor to the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County began a two-year project to uncover only the best-preserved mammal bones.
These days, it's the smaller discoveries — plants, insects and rodents — that are shaping scientists' views of life in the region 11,000 to 50,000 years ago.
“Earlier excavations really missed a great part of the story,” said John Harris, chief curator at the George C. Page Museum, which oversees the fossils. People “were only taking out bones they could see, but it's the hidden bones that provide clues to the environment.”
Visitors to the museum can watch scientists hunched over microscopes, sorting bone fragments belonging to extinct creatures.
The richest cache of Ice Age fossils — about 5.5 million bones representing more than 600 species of animals and plants — has been recovered over the last 100 years. But there's so much left to do, it could easily take another century to complete.
In a storage area of the museum, floor-to-ceiling shelves of wooden crates house bones that need to be cleaned, identified or labeled. The museum estimates it has 100,000 specimens to catalog and another million to scrub.
The area, seven miles west of downtown, was once home to herds of beasts. As animals got stuck in the gooey asphalt, they became easy prey — and a trap — for predators.
“I can't think of any other site that is as rich,” said Sarah George, executive director of the Natural History Museum of Utah.
Every time a foundation is dug, “more old blocks of tar filled with fossils came out of the ground,” George said.
But they won't find any dinosaurs, which were extinct for 65 million years before animals began to be trapped in La Brea. The remains of only one human have been found, a woman who died 9,000 years ago.
Subscribe today! Click here for our subscription offers.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Moody’s lowers Met Opera rating
- FBI trains 30,000 officers to confront mass shooters
- Dog-fighting ring raid leads to 22 indicted
- Ariz. begins giving licenses to young illegals
- Former headmaster Wheeler of Delaware prep school convicted of dealing in child porn
- Virus, pests blamed for Kan. death
- Judge says Ariz. sheriff’s challenge of immigration plan better left for Congress
- N.Y. GOP lawmaker to plead guilty to federal tax fraud
- Georgia prosecutor Yates tapped for No. 2 post in Justice Department
- Milwaukee officer won’t be charged in fatal shooting
- Federal appeals court upholds ban on N.C. abortion law