Geologist Guides Students Through Peninsula History : Class Sifts Shifting Sands for Clues to the Past

Times Staff Writer

With a storm front approaching the Palos Verdes Peninsula last weekend, Martin Reiter went for a walk into the past.

It was a journey through a bustling modern-day landscape of freeways, oil refineries, port cranes, housing developments, supermarkets, power lines, beer cans, a discarded shoe--grist for the archeologists of the future.

But the fascination lay in the world below--a hidden world that jealously guards its secrets, yielding them only to trained eyes and painstaking scientific method, a world that tantalizes with imaginings of an alternate reality and provides occasion for melancholy meditation on the vastness of time and the insignificance of humanity.

The conductor of this metaphoric, at times whimsical, tour was Reiter, 59, a geologist and author of “The Palos Verdes Peninsula--A Geologic Guide and More.” He was taking students from his UCLA Extension course on a fossil field trip on the eastern end of the Peninsula.


Reiter’s book describes the little-known but key role that the Peninsula, noted these days as a domain of clean air, high-priced real estate and slow-moving landslides, played in the formation and preservation of the Los Angeles coastal plain.

First surfacing as an island 600,000 years ago, the Peninsula broke up wave action and permitted the sedimentation process that formed the coastal plain, according to Reiter’s book.

“Were it not for this protection,” he wrote, “the Los Angeles coastline would likely trend in a nearly straight line from the Santa Monica Mountains near Pacific Palisades to the San Joaquin Hills near Huntington Beach and would encompass at least 300 fewer square miles than at present.”

Before the recent rains, Reiter had talked about the vanished civilization that ruled the Los Angeles Basin, a whale that died 100,000 years ago and a herring from the Miocene Period 20 million years ago.


He began in a tiny museum at Harbor College, where a skull found in 1965 near the Peninsula’s Malaga Cove lay reconstructed in a glass cabinet.

The skull belonged to a member of the Gabrieleno civilization, whose villages stretched from Topanga Canyon and the San Fernando Valley through the Los Angeles Basin to the coastal strip south of San Juan Capistrano and out to Santa Catalina, San Clemente and San Nicolas islands.

“Look at the teeth. Look how ground down they are,” Reiter said, pointing to molars he said had been worn smooth by a coarse diet. An early account that he quoted in his book says that the Gabrieleno women were good-looking with lovely eyes, that the children were friendly and that the men, in addition to being clever, “had a talent for thievery.”

The Gabrieleno on exhibit died 1,800 years ago, according to radiocarbon dating--long before contacts with Spaniards and the Old World diseases they carried destroyed the Gabrieleno culture.

As the UCLA group headed for a yellow school bus, the talk fell to real estate, as do many conversations connected with the Palos Verdes Peninsula. Ralph Tisdale explained why he took the $115 course.

“We were thinking of buying on the Peninsula and geology is a problem,” he said, alluding to areas on the Peninsula where the land is unstable. “So I thought I better learn all I could.”

Next stop was a nondescript roadside hillock sandwiched between the Port of Los Angeles and the Harbor Freeway, close to the intersection of Figueroa Street and John S. Gibson Boulevard, where Shipwreck Joey’s Cabaret advertises “TOPLESS” in three-foot letters.

The site has a more scientific significance. It is close to the spot where, in 1971, the only known fossilized skeleton of a gray whale was found in 1971.


One hundred thousand years ago, the hill was under water, probably a lagoon, sheltered from the waves. The tide washed the corpse of the whale inland and sand covered it. Massive subterranean forces took over and the land began to rise to its present 50 feet above sea level.

Reiter’s students scrambled up the hill, discovering no more whales, not even a prized shark’s tooth, settling instead, somewhat disconsolately, for clamshells and crab fragments that looked much like latter-day beach debris.

“All this stuff is 100,000 years old,” Reiter told his group.

“Holy cow, it looks like modern,” said Roy Campbell, a Peninsula developer of million-dollar homes. Campbell said he was taking the course because “I figure . . . I’ll know more than the geologists I have to deal with.”

Reiter took his charges to the Point Fermin landslide. In 1929, a section of Paseo del Mar in San Pedro suddenly gave way, dropping the roadway more than 50 feet in some sections.

Today, the original road bed lies drunkenly scattered across a choppy terrain. Local youth, who refer to it as the “Sunken City,” use it as a hideaway.

“Early Budweiser,” Reiter said, pointing scornfully to evidence of modern primitives.

The final stop was an abandoned quarry off Forrestal Drive.


Cliffs that now show vertical layers of shale were long ago horizontal sea beds, and small herring-like fish schooled in that unnamed sea. And a fragment of one herring, the rest probably devoured by a larger fish, fell to the bottom--unnoticed, unmourned, unknown.

The little fish slept undisturbed in its primordial cover for 20 million years while mountains rose and fell, continents drifted apart, and the creatures whose progeny would become human first rose up and walked on two legs.

On last weekend’s expedition, the soft rock encasing the fish was rudely knocked by a hammer made in Taiwan. The tan shale split and exposed an orange marking.

“That’s a fish,” Martin Reiter said. “It is 20 million years old.”

Then the rains blew in off the Pacific, as they have been doing since time began, Reiter and his students raced for the bus, and the landscape disappeared into the mists.