La Brea tar pits are a "time machine" that take LA to the Pleistocene

The Los Angeles County Natural History Museum celebrated its 100th anniversary of excavation at the La Brea Tar Pits Monday with a guided tour by the dig site's museum curator and free admission for visitors.

As giddy paleontologists and curious schoolchildren roamed the park and museum, county officials and the head of the Natural History Museum boasted of the area's place in Los Angeles history.


In essence, it all started right there beneath their feet.

"This site is not just a backdrop. It represents the cultural and scientific legacy that ignited over a century's worth of paleontological discovery in the middle of urban Los Angeles," said Jane Pisano, Natural History Museum president.

Though excavators continue to unearth treasures at the tar pits, the nearby Page Museum is at a crossroads, said Chief Curator John Harris.

The Page is looking to add more historical context to its finds. Officials hope technology will help paint a larger portrait of what roamed along today's Wilshire Boulevard 10,000 to 46,000 years ago.

It wasn't just saber-toothed cats, dire wolves and mammoths, Harris said. They lived among rodents and insects, thick sagebrush and chaparral. At Pit 91, which has been excavated since 1915, a board keeps the last three years' tallies of discoveries, each numbering in the thousands.

One of the museum’s most famous finds came recently during excavation for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art parking lot. Among the 15,000 bones found in the site since 2008 was “Zed,” a 80% complete skeleton of a Columbian mammoth.

“There’s nowhere else where we can access Pleistocene life like we can here,” said Blaire Van Valkenburgh of the UCLA Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.

Since George Allan Hancock gave exclusive excavating rights to Los Angeles County in 1913, about 5.5 million fossils have been pulled from the pits, one of the world's most famous Ice Age fossil locations.

Though the museum is celebrating 100 years of excavation, the pits were actually known for fossils in the years ahead of Hancock handing over the rights to Los Angeles County.

Many of the pits are still actively searched. On Monday, museum workers Carrie Howard and Laura Tewksbury were gently brushing off a bison vertebra when they were surrounded by reporters and museumgoers.

"Every grain of sand you move, you're uncovering another grain of sand no other human has ever seen, so it's very exciting," Tewskbury said. "Especially when you're finding fossils."

Museum workers say early excavators focused on the biggest bones and tossed much of the sentiment and small stuff aside. It wasn't until an intensive effort between 1969 and 2007 that doubled the facility's collection that the Page Museum had a more developed picture of the Pleistocene period in Los Angeles, officials said.

“When you think of L.A. you think of the Hollywood sign and the Capitol Records building,” Harris said. “But you also think of that mammoth standing at the edge of the lake,” a reference to the model at the edge of the biggest tar pool off of Wilshire Boulevard.

“As we have discovered, the late Pleistocene really put Los Angeles on the map,” county supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky quipped to handful of onlookers and scientists Monday. “Not Hollywood, not the Dodgers, not the Lakers, not the Clippers. But the Pleistocene… This has become an international destination. Literally people from all over the world are here every day.”

The tar preserves the specimens so they can be chemically analyzed to tell a story about their diet, environment and possibly what sort of injuries they endured during their life, scientists said.

"All of these things tell us what was actually growing," said Shelley Cox, the museum's lab supervisor, who's worked there since 1973. "It's the technological time machine that can fill in the blanks."