LOS ANGELES - It's one of the most amazing geological sites in America, and home to one of America's most amazing collections, too. The name says it all: La Brea Tar Pits.
Tar pits still slowly releasing victims
It's hard to think of a more mundane word than "tar." It's the stuff we pave our roads with. Almost every kid has had the soles of his or her shoes stick to road tar on a hot summer day.
Those are just minor inconveniences compared to the death traps the ponds of tar once were. During the Pleistocene Ice Age, from about 40,000 to 10,000 years ago animals and plants, large and small, wandered into these black pools. Few escaped, judging from the more than a million bones recovered from La Brea.
Leaves and grass blew across the tar, forming a thin top layer identical to the surrounding ground. Unsuspecting animals grazed right out into the stuff. The tar quickly trapped them; their frantic struggles only engulfed them deeper and deeper. Their frenzied cries attracted carnivores, including the saber-toothed cat, which pounced on the helpless victims, only to find itself trapped by the same tar.
Brea means tar in Spanish. The Spanish, like the Indians before them, seem to have been more interested in keeping away from the tar than investigating what was in it. It wasn't until 1863, when a Major Hancock purchased the area, that any investigating took place.
Those early probings were probably for oil, but they uncovered bones. Around 1913 the first real excavations started.
In 1972 George C. Page sponsored the opening of the fine museum that bears his name. Excavations continue under the direction of museum staff. Bones from the pits are taken there and cleaned (with a common dishwashing detergent), then identified and cataloged. Some are stored, some are used in reconstructions. All this work is displayed in the museum, with only à thin glass separating the technicians and scientists from the viewing public. The million-plus bone total is still growing every year. It is a painstaking process, with years needed to carefully examine just a few square meters. The present excavation, Pit 91, is open to public viewing. There is no glamour here. It is hard, sweaty work to slowly clear the glutinous tar away. Huge fans blowing in the deep pit seem to do little to relieve the heat or the obnoxious smell of the asphalt still seeping into the pit.
In all, researchers have identified more than 420 species of animals and about 140 species of plants.
Giant mammals ruled the Pleistocene. Imperial mammoths, largest of the elephant tribe, stood 4.5 meters tall and weighed around 6,800 kg. Ground sloths the size of a rhinoceros ambled from tree to tree. Huge camels and bison grazed on the plains. A lion the size of a grizzly bear.
Dire wolves were just that - dire: About the size of ponies, they hunted in packs. Over 1,600 of their skulls have been found here so far.
The tar asphalt is especially effective for saving fragile bird bones, and has yielded the largest collection of fossil bird bones ever: over 100,000 carefully excavated bones. The most impressive bird of the time was Merriam's giant condor with its 4-meter wingspan. For comparison, today's California condor has a wingspan of about 2.9 meters.
The two long, slashing fangs protruding from its upper jaw gave the saber-toothed cat its name. (The giant ground sloth had a special pair of bones wrapping its neck as protection from the long fangs.) Sometimes loosely called the saber-toothed tiger, these big predators actually belonged to a separate sub-family of the Felidae, called the Machairodontidae, now completely extinct.
Other exhibits in the museum include a two-thirds-scale moving model of a woolly mammoth realistic enough to send small children scurrying behind parents. The reconstructed skeleton of a mastodon with huge curling tusks impresses everyone. The massive skeleton of the American lion makes you glad you don't have to worry about meeting one on the walk back out to the car.
Perhaps most affecting is the collection of 404 dire wolf skulls neatly arranged in rows filing one wall. Look at these remnants of pack hunters long enough and you start to get the chills.
It is more than a bit surreal that these tar pits are in the heart of downtown Los Angeles, right on the "Miracle Mile" and a short walk from the exclusive boutiques of Rodeo Drive. The tar pits still bubble and burp from gas seeping up. In some places the tar is seeping and pushing under protective chain link fences. Some kids (and grown-ups) go home with a fresh tar coating on their soles.
Did any people fall victim to the tar? So far only one human skeleton has been found. It belonged to a young woman who died about 10,000 years ago. Scientists determined that she was a murder victim from the way her skull was crushed.
Volunteers lead regular tours of the George C. Page Museum. There are also free outdoor tours. As well as interesting exhibits, the museum has movies on the world of the tar pits and on dinosaurs, even though dinosaurs died out more than 64 million years before the tar pits started collecting birds and mammals.
The George C. Page Museum of La Brea Tar Pits is at 5801 Wilshire Blvd. in Los Angeles.
BAD TO THE BONE - A researcher works on bones from the La Brea tar pits at the George C. Page Museum in Los Angeles. More than a million have been extracted so far. JON BURBANK PHOTO