Unsolved Mysteries: Who Killed 9,000-Year-Old Woman?

I drove out the other day to Rancho La Brea, in Hancock Park, for my periodic look at the famous tar pits and the 9,000-year-old woman.

I was moved this time by the fall issue of the Natural History Museum’s magazine, Terra, which was devoted entirely to the pits and the 1 million prehistoric fossils extracted from them in this century.

The watery pools of asphalt still lie just off Wilshire Boulevard in front of the George C. Page Museum, which houses the fossils from the Pleistocene, or late Ice Age. The fossils represent 600 species of plants and animals, including 58 mammals, 138 birds, 24 reptiles and six amphibians.

A startling introduction to the collection are the reconstructed monsters that are perennially trapped in the pits out in front of the museum, including an elephantlike mammoth with her giant pretzel horns.


According to Terra, the great mammals were not necessarily swallowed up in the pits but were stuck on the surface tar like flies on flypaper. They died in anguish, leaving their bones for schoolchildren to examine today, 40,000 years later. Seeing the giant mammals struggling in the tar lakes, one can almost hear their bellowing in the Wilshire Boulevard traffic.

The scene indeed suggests that nature is red of tooth and claw. One can imagine a saber-toothed cat slinking across the watery surface to attack a trapped and helpless antelope. The cat in turn is stuck and then is devoured by dire wolves or by great buzzards who flap in to tear at his flesh. Wolves and buzzards also become stuck in the tar, leaving their own bones for modern paleontologists to pick at.

Inside the museum, platoons of schoolchildren moved from exhibit to exhibit like amoebas, evidently not unnerved by these hideous images of the past. The bones of several large mammals had been lovingly reconstructed, awesome in their size and weaponry. An Imperial mammoth stood 13 feet high. Two saber-tooths played with their cubs, their 10-inch incisors looking ferocious even in domesticity.

A Western horse (now extinct) had been reconstituted around its bones; a wall contained many skulls of the 1,600 dire wolves whose bones have been recovered. (Terra notes that among the most peculiar finds were dire wolf penis bones. I wouldn’t have thought that penises had any bones.)

Wall murals sought to portray the landscape as it might have looked 40,000 years ago. It was very much then as it is today, Terra notes, with mountains above a broad plain leveling off to the sea. A zoo of prehistoric animals is shown: camels, zebra-like horses, mammoths, mastodons, bears, ground sloths, wolves and bison.

One exhibit shows the bones and painted representation of numerous bird carnivores, somehow looking even more bloodthirsty than the saber-tooths. If the tar didn’t get you, the buzzards would.

What I had really come to see, though, was the 9,000-year-old woman. I almost passed her by. She was in a narrow closet behind a window in the wall. Her closet alternately lightened and darkened, showing her in two modes: one, her skeleton, complete; the other, fleshed out, with a plump face, a small shapely body, and black hair falling in strands that covered her naked breasts. I wondered at the excessive modesty that caused the curators to cover this ancient woman’s breasts. Undoubtedly her contemporaries were subjected to no such prudery.

La Brea Woman, as they call her, was about 4 feet 8 inches tall. She was not found in the tar, but in a nearby grave. There was some suggestion that she may have been murdered. In any case, she is the oldest human specimen ever discovered in Southern California. Her people evidently dealt in asphalt for a living.

Walking on, I came to a wall of large colored representations of the museum’s treasures, including a portrait of La Brea Woman. In this one, for some reason, her long hair had been moved to either side of her torso, revealing her breasts in their full glory. I wondered at the reason behind this compromise in taste. Perhaps three-dimensional breasts were considered too explicit.

While the wealth of fossils mined from the pits is fabulous, diggers have turned up only 58 artifacts, from 4,000 to 9,000 years old. Most were related to asphalt mining. Elk antlers were used as asphalt picks. There were no elk in Southern California, so the aborigines evidently traded asphalt for elk antlers from the San Joaquin Valley, where elk still live today.

If indeed La Brea Woman was murdered, one wonders why. What was her crime? Or was she an innocent victim of violence? Today, when the artistic mainstays of Southern California’s entertainment industry are sex and violence, perhaps La Brea Woman is a testament to the antiquity of that genre. I suspect she was the victim of a jealous lover or husband.

It was ever so.