If you visit Los Angeles, or even if you live here, the La Brea Tar Pits, the real dark heart of Los Angeles, seem like a mere tourist attraction, an entertaining stop along the way. Yet the whole history of the city lies buried here, from the late Pleistocene era on. The tar pits are noir, figuratively and literally. They are a wide, gaping, black graveyard, in some places hidden and paved over, in others visible and sticky. The tar pits contain L.A.’s earliest resource, pitch (as in “pitch black”), which is really solidified petroleum, also called asphaltum, a thick layer of goo between the surface and L.A.’s later, deeper resource, oil.
I have a fascination with the tar pits because I live on top of them. That’s what my dream house is: a clapboard construction built over a tarry ooze.
The open pits--which are part of a larger geological phenomenon that is now almost entirely covered up and developed--are prominently located at the Page Museum on Wilshire Boulevard, next to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. You drive past Ralphs, Rite Aid, a Wells Fargo bank, Smart & Final, IHOP, Variety’s offices, EMI, Baja Fresh and Koo Koo Roo to get there. You drive almost all the way to Flynt Publications, an ovoid building that is the headquarters of Larry Flynt’s pornography-based publishing kingdom.
A few months after I came to California, I went to the tar pits. They and my neighborhood were once all part of Rancho La Brea, a land parcel of 4,450 square acres right in the middle of what is now L.A. Until the late 1920s, most of the rancho was undeveloped. Gaspar de Portola, the Spanish governor of Baja California, crossed the Los Angeles River in 1769 and--according to information posted in the museum--”proceeded west along what is now Wilshire Boulevard” (that is, he was heading toward my neighborhood, on horseback), and came upon the pits.
“In the afternoon,” wrote Juan Crespi, a priest who accompanied the expedition, “we felt new earthquakes, the continuation of which astonishes us. We judge that in the mountains that run to the west in front of us there are some volcanoes, for there are many signs on the road . . . The explorers saw some large marshes of a certain substance like pitch, they were boiling and bubbling . . . and there is such an abundance of it that it would serve to caulk many ships.”
The Indians who lived in the area used the tar as an adhesive and for waterproofing.
A Portuguese sailor-turned-businessman, Antonio Jose Rocha, became Rancho La Brea’s first owner, and he later sold or deeded portions of his ranch. By 1883, the ranch house had become a Realtor’s office, with a money lender conveniently on the premises.
Female bones excavated from the bubbling asphalt in 1914 used to be mounted in the museum, alongside a life-sized dummy purporting to resemble the woman to whom the bones had belonged. The exhibit was called La Brea Woman. La Brea means “the tar” in Spanish. La Brea Woman probably died from injuries inflicted by a blunt instrument: a piece of bone is missing from the top of her skull. (This flaw has been patched over, the poor old skull having been unearthed in the land of cosmetic enhancement.) Scientists believe that La Brea Woman died with her dog by her side, since canine bones were found near her remains. La Brea Woman is 9,000 years old, has a hole in her head and a broken jaw, and I feel connected to her. That’s how I feel at dinner parties on the Westside of L.A., among the blond second wives and pontificating producers.
La Brea Woman was not part of the tribe that lived in the environs of the tar pits, where she ended up. Where could she have come from? But then, California is a place for foundlings, whether disconnected by accident or free on their own recognizance. La Brea Woman wandered in from nowhere. She’s in a drawer now, in a dingy room. Why does this not surprise me? Like so many in L.A., she turns out to be not entirely what was represented.
About two years ago, the tar pits museum removed her exhibit from what is now an emergency exit between the “Invertebrates” case and the “Asphalt and People” case. Her exhibit was removed because the curator, John M. Harris, was worried that this display of historic remains might offend Native Americans or attract attention to her remains. So many relics are disappearing from public view for reburial on the reservations.
La Brea Woman had been an old-fashioned exhibit, a sort of archaic special-effects phenomenon, and painfully inauthentic. Such exhibits are called “Pepper’s ghosts” after their 19th century British inventor, John Henry Pepper, who designed the illusion for the stage. Using mirrors and spotlights, the La Brea Woman exhibit let viewers see her skeleton and then, as if by magic, the actual woman herself, a dolled-up mannequin.
Then back to the skeleton. And so on.
When I saw her, La Brea Woman’s alleged skeleton hung from a hook on an old wooden coat rack in the museum’s curating office behind the research lab, and the mannequin stood next to it, virtually shoulder to shoulder, near desks and file cabinets. It would be creepy to have your body looking at its skeleton in this way, but it turns out that (1) it was not the actual whole skeleton of La Brea Woman, and (2) she would have looked nothing like the mannequin, a very young, attractive, sensuous, tanned brunet with long, long hair strategically covering her nipples.
Although the skull attached to the skeleton is a cast of La Brea Woman’s actual skull, the rest of the skeleton belonged to a modern Pakistani female, according to museum officials, and was purchased by L.A.’s Natural History Museum from Ward’s Natural Science back when Ward’s still sold actual human remains. The Pakistani woman’s skeleton was then colored to resemble the dark bronze coloring of bones that have aged in tar, and the femurs were shortened and put back together to achieve an approximation of La Brea Woman’s small stature.
So from start to finish, the person I knew as La Brea Woman was a phony, a creation of fabulists and liars, a woman put together to entrance men with her perfect adolescent breasts and lithe waist and little loincloth and pretty little face, like the young Elizabeth Taylor’s.
“Actually, she had an ectopic tooth,” Christopher Shaw tells me. He is the collections manager. He has opened the file cabinet labeled Artifacts Pit 10: La Brea Woman and removed a skull from an old wooden box that was tied up with rope and upon which is written “Fragile, Handle with Care.” He shows me an indentation to the right of the skull’s top jaw, where the tooth would have shown above her lip.
“She had lost many teeth by then,” Shaw says, turning the skull in his hands to show La Brea Woman’s various defects. “The molar in her lower jaw is impacted.” Though she was between 18 and 22 years old when she died, La Brea Woman may well have been considered middle-aged, according to Shaw: An elder in those days was someone who lived to about 30. It was a long time ago. La Brea Woman is the oldest known Californian.
Paleontologists’ belief that she died a violent death outside the tar pits and was then tossed in has been bolstered by the fact that the missing piece of her skull hasn’t turned up in any of the thousands of digs in the area over the years. In the end, not much of her was found at all, and in the 1970s, when she was in transit from the Natural History Museum to the new Page Museum, one of her femurs was stolen.
One would not know from the wealth of information provided to museum visitors that the La Brea Tar Pits are at the center of a perfervid religio-scientific controversy, one that has been tormenting many souls in this problematic, anti-scientific, fundamentalist era. Creationist scientists (another contradiction in terms) have recently been asserting that the tar pits provide evidence of a global flood, the one Noah got caught in.
Paleontologists have always assumed that the La Brea Tar Pits were simply large pools of asphalt dating back about 40,000 years, possibly covered with a layer of dirt and dust, and when stepped on by an animal of any weight would suck it down and asphyxiate it. This murderous aspect explained the presence of a cornucopia of fossil remains. It also explained why the ratio of carnivore to herbivore bones far exceeded what the ratio would have been among the animal population living in the area.
It is believed that groups of carnivores, including carnivorous birds, were attracted to the pits by the smell of the decaying flesh of another animal--herbivore or carnivore--trapped in the tar, and that the birds, descending on the carcass, became entrapped themselves. The huge collection of remains of an extinct type of wolf in the pits--which no other postulate could explain--is one of many long-acknowledged proofs of this theory.
But certain scientists today do not accept this received wisdom. These scientists, or pseudoscientists, have turned the tar pits into an unprepossessing but important battleground in their muscular attempt to drown out the voice of rational, non-faith-based science. Part of the creation-science movement, they claim the earth itself is younger than the generally accepted age of the tar pits (since Scripture describes at most, according to their calculations, only 10,000 years). The fossil remains in the tar pits, they assert--with much grave data, and many charts and drawings to accompany their assertions--were carried there by a huge flow of water, providing absolute proof of a global flood. Only this, for them, can explain the presence of such great numbers of carnivores: They were swept there by the flood.
Such thinking has its roots in the work of the mad genius, astronomer and friend of Einstein, Immanuel Velikovsky. In his best-selling book “Worlds in Collision” (1950), Velikovsky posited that Venus broke off from Jupiter 3,500 years ago and caused massive environmental disasters on Earth, disasters that were documented in their day in various religious myths around the globe, including flood, drought and plagues of locusts.
Those who have followed Velikovsky are called catastrophists, so of course I feel threads of sympathy with them. Unlike me, however, these catastrophists are trying to cobble together a key to all mythologies, which seems to fit in with the way much of the world’s population is thinking right now.
What was the flood but a giant tsunami, like the one in December of 2004, but bigger? We saw the way the tsunami threw all the bodies together in a heap: that’s the tar pits, the catastrophists say, ignoring the tar part. We are bad and God will punish us--so goes the thinking. (Actually, the new catastrophists do not think that they themselves are bad, only that the rest of us are.)
For the catastrophists, the flood that they believe filled the tar pits with carcasses in one day contradicts the theory of evolution, which they call gradualism. Wayne Jackson wrote in the Christian Courier in 2000:
“According to the evolutionary scientists who ‘interpret’ the data (and make no mistake about it, ‘interpretation’ is the key word), the La Brea record goes back at least 40,000 years. Those who respect the testimony of the Scriptures would not agree with this protracted chronology. The question is, therefore: to what sort of conclusions does this fossil evidence point--evolutionary gradualism, or biblical catastrophism?”
Jackson explained that “these discoveries generate a special interest for creationists, because they lend considerable support to the concept of catastrophism. This is the view that the fossil record in general is explained better in terms of the universal Flood, recorded in Genesis 6-8, than it is by means of the evolutionary ideology known as [gradualism], the notion that the fossil record was laid down, ever so gradually, over millions of years.”
In recent years, earthquake, flood and terrorism have led people to worry about the End Days, even to go to the extreme of sticking them on their vanity plates, like the “End Days” plate I saw the other day coming back from the Salton Sea. They’ve even, perhaps, led some people to the extreme of electing a superhero governor, someone with the strength and tenacity to wrench us from a bad destiny. As a friend of mine said over dinner one night, “I’m a Democrat, but I like Bush because he’s decisive. Clinton always wanted to think about every issue from every angle. I can’t stand that, all that doubt and worry, that constant questioning. I want a decision maker.”
It’s the same principle that caused Californians to vote for Schwarzenegger, the same thing that made me hope he was a rescuer, the same principle that makes the creationists want to fit the tar pits into a prearranged scheme. People feel comfortable with certainty.
Here is Wayne Jackson again at the end of a piece on natural disasters in the Christian Courier, published in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami:
“Let us therefore close with this little exercise in logic.
No wickedness, no Flood.
No Flood, no change of earth’s environment.
No change of earth’s environment, no geological disasters. Thus, no wickedness, no geological disasters.
Now just who is responsible for the trouble on this ‘planet in rebellion [against God]’?
The fault for these disasters is not God’s. It is humanity’s!”
The La Brea paleontologists, however, can sometimes sound as if they too are being a little cagey. Reading them with Jackson’s (and Noah’s) flood in mind, you have to wonder if maybe they aren’t entirely forthcoming. In “Rancho La Brea: Death Trap and Treasure Trove,” the tar pits’ curator, John Harris, writes:
“Some of the animals represented in the asphaltic deposits, such as the domestic dog and sheep, evidently accompanied humans into the region. Remains of the tule elk, and some marine snails and clams, are also known from Rancho La Brea only in the context of human artifacts. The presence of other marine species is more difficult to explain, but perhaps some of the microscopic diatoms and ostracods were transported by onshore winds, and the smaller marine clams and snails could have been brought inland by shore birds.”
Harris seems to be hedging here about how those normally oceanic clams and snails got mixed up in the pits; those onshore winds and shore birds sound a little weak as arguments, to me, knowing how far the pits are from the Pacific--at least today. But I wouldn’t turn to Scripture to find a more plausible explanation.
Still, I rejoice that catastrophism should find its greatest proof in the tar pits in California, virtually in my backyard, and that La Brea Woman, star of the controversy, should turn out to be the only human in the pits. Why is it, I ask the creationists, that so many wolves were carried to the pits by the flood, but only one lone human? I search and search for Wayne Jackson’s explanation (Jackson has an explanation for everything, based on Scripture), but although I find a mention of “the fractured skull of a young woman,” I can discover no clarification concerning this anomaly.
Yet I am convinced that Jackson has an explanation. I believe that if you follow the logic of Jackson’s flood argument, La Brea Woman must have ended up in the pits because--even back then--L.A. society found her too old and too ugly to be invited onto any ark. But if you are not a catastrophist, you come up with two possibilities:
Either La Brea Woman was the stupidest human around and somehow missed the news that the tar pits were sticky death traps, or--as paleontologists have assumed--she was killed elsewhere and her remains were thrown into the pits. If the paleontologists are correct, La Brea Woman is L.A.’s first documented murder victim.
On leaving the tar pits museum, I feel a customary twinge of sadness and regret. Regret, because I am abandoning La Brea Woman there in her file cabinet. I want to give her a name, but what would it be? Emily? Ashley? Samantha? Isabella? Natalie? (These were the five most popular girls’ names in California in 2004.) None of those seems right. My heart reaches out to her, nameless and alone in her drawer, so broken, so ancient, so forgotten.
And I feel sadness too because the museum is threadbare and, like California itself--whose prehistory it depicts--underfunded. Because it’s done on the cheap and only sporadically updated, the tar pits’ cheerful showmanship rings with the innocent sweetness of another era, and that era is not the late Pleistocene. Everything inside the museum has a worn look. The moving, growling exhibits--mammoth and saber-toothed cat and giant sloth--are mangy and low-rent, even if they do make young children scream. Their stuttering motions and tinny sound have you looking for a hidden tape player. The mammoth lifts its trunk and you can hear it creak.
It’s unnerving too that the museum--no matter how you try to block the fact--is an homage to an oil reserve where millions of creatures died. It has an almost childlike respect for petroleum and petroleum byproducts, a wide-eyed appreciation entirely appropriate for an institution that commemorates tar and was built above what can only be described as a mass grave.
As I walk out toward Wilshire, the sharp, dangerous smell of methane intrudes on my wistfulness. You can’t ignore methane, because it’s so distinctly related to the smell of oil and gasoline. With the stench of organic fumes in my nostrils, I walk past Lake Pit, the museum’s display pit, out front on Wilshire.
Poor mammoths of Lake Pit, a mother trying vainly to escape the sucking tar and reach her calf. Huge replicas of these animals struggle eternally, their elephantine legs caught in the tarry blackness, their broad backs straining. The pit bubbles and steams, releasing noxious gases from the underworld as if it were a witch’s gaping black caldron. This Boschian tableau of a family going under is L.A.’s idea of what constitutes good publicity for a kids’ museum. “They’re just playing,” I hear a mother tell her small son.
And so are we all--just playing. Yet sometimes when I look around me in L.A.--see the cars sniffing each other’s rears as we plod along in traffic over miles and miles of blacktop, smell the exhaust blowing, and watch the uptick on the meters at the pumps--sometimes I think, yes, that the mammoth’s mother is not the only one.
Maybe we’re all caught up along with her in that same quagmire of asphaltum and petroleum, slogging our way over roads from one place to another to another, pretending not to notice our own tarry ooze.
This article is adapted from Amy Wilentz’s new book “I Feel Earthquakes More Often Than They Happen: Coming to California in the Age of Schwarzenegger” (Simon & Schuster). Copyright 2006 by Amy Wilentz.
The stories shaping California
Get up to speed with our Essential California newsletter, sent six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.