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L.A. celebrates century of Ice Age fossil finds in La Brea Tar Pits

| Sunday, Oct. 27, 2013, 6:51 p.m.

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.

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