Tunneling to the Past : Red Line Worker Unearths Fossils of Animals That Roamed Hollywood Area More Than 10,000 Years Ago


Michael Guinther’s scientific instincts run deep. About 60 feet deep.

Guinther, a worker on the Metro Red Line subway, has found four prehistoric fossils within a two-month period while boring tunnels beneath Hollywood Boulevard. His discoveries--teeth of a mastodon and a camel, leg and toe bones of a horse and the foot of an ancient bison--all are at least 10,000 years old, and possibly up to 200,000 years old.

Experts said Wednesday that the finds could well be the first of their kind in the Hollywood area, a few miles northeast of the La Brea Tar Pits, where similar remains have been unearthed for years.

“It fills in the record . . . of where these animals were living and dying and being deposited,” said Christopher Shaw, collection manager at the George C. Page Museum at the tar pits. “It gives us more of the L.A. Basin to be able to interpret.”


Guinther--who, fittingly, works the graveyard shift in the tunnels anywhere from 40 to 80 feet below the Earth’s surface--could not be reached for comment Wednesday. But the way his bosses at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority tell it, he stumbled upon the leg and toe bones of a prehistoric horse March 8, nearly 50 feet below the intersection of Hollywood Boulevard and Western Avenue.

Then, as the tunnels proceeded westward beneath Hollywood Boulevard, Guinther found a second fossil--part of a mastodon molar--on March 31, followed just a few days later by the discovery of the bison forefoot beneath Gramercy Avenue.

Finally, on April 20, about 76 feet below the Hollywood Freeway, he came across molars from an ancient species of camel that was once common in North America but is now extinct.

“He has a good eye,” Jim Sowell, manager of environmental compliance for the project, said of Guinther. “He sees something gleam, hops down, picks it up, puts it in his lunch box and gives it to the paleontological monitor the next day.”

For his acute powers of observation, Guinther has been honored with a certificate of appreciation by the MTA, which encourages workers to spot and turn in fossils or artifacts.

“We try to impress upon the workers that the fossils are scientifically important,” said Bruce Lander, the consultant on the project whose company catalogues the finds. Eventually, the fossils will probably be donated to the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History.


Hundreds of fossils have been uncovered since construction of the Red Line began several years ago, most of them of marine invertebrates, Lander said. Excavation has also turned up a cache of culturally significant artifacts, such as cooking utensils and porcelain from Old Chinatown that was razed half a century ago to make room for Union Station.

The fossils found by Guinther closely resemble the remains of animals yielded by the tar pits. The Pleistocene-era creatures roamed the area for thousands of years until the end of the last Ice Age, about 10,000 years ago.

Shaw said fossils of mastodons and camels are relatively rare in the region.

The horse and bison, thought by some to be direct ancestors of modern buffalo, are more common, Shaw said.