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La Brea Tar Pits Facility Will Celebrate 10th Anniversary

April 04, 1987|WILLIAM S. MURPHY

Friday will mark the 10th anniversary of the opening of one of the nation's unique museums. Unlike most others that assemble their artifacts either regionally or from distant lands, George C. Page elected to build the one he donated to Los Angeles County on top of the artifacts, as it were--on land where thousands of prehistoric birds and animals became trapped in a bituminous morass known as the La Brea Tar Pits.

Page, a prominent industrialist noted for his philanthropies, reminisced recently about the evolution of the museum in Hancock Park that bears his name. He recalled arriving in Los Angeles in 1917 with $2 in his pocket. During his early lean years, he visited the Natural History Museum in Exposition Park where fossils from Rancho La Brea were gathering dust. Later he went to the site of the excavations along Wilshire Boulevard.

"They were just large open holes in the ground," he said. "I thought at the time what a wonderful idea it would be to have a museum right here where all the fossils had been discovered."

Page was able to realize his dream more than 50 years later. He was successful in a number of enterprises; first as the founder of Mission Pak, which shipped dried California fruit to every part of the nation, and later as a land developer.

"I felt confident about building here even if it was a swamp," he said. "I approached the directors of the Natural History Museum in 1970. Some were afraid that I would start the project and not finish it, but several had the vision to see the advantages and were enthusiastic."

The county owned the 20-acre parcel of land and the Board of Supervisors showed interest in the project after viewing a rendering. Page was given the green light. Selecting a team of architects and designers, he went to work to create a museum that would be unlike any other in the world, one where people could come through in large numbers and never feel crowded. It would tell the story of one of the most fascinating discoveries of all time.

5 Million Visitors

To date, more than 5 million visitors have passed through its halls gazing at the looming skeletons of mastodons, the reconstructions of woolly mammoths and saber-toothed cats, and the dioramas. Page figures he has spent more than $5 million on his gift to Los Angeles.

While Los Angeles residents of the early 1800s once used the tar found in the pits to cover their roofs and grease their carreta wheels, the La Brea story really begins in 1875. It was then that William Denton visited Henry Hancock and his brother, John, who had purchased the Rancho La Brea in 1860. They had been shipping asphalt from the giant pit to San Francisco to pave the city's streets.

Denton recognized that many of the bones scattered in the tar were fossils. By 1906, John C. Merriam of the University of California, Berkeley and his students were excavating the pits. They made a momentous discovery. The animals and birds deposited here were 10,000 to 38,000 years old, dating from the end of the Pleistocene Ice Age.

1 Million Specimens

Since 1906, more than 1 million prehistoric specimens have been recovered from the La Brea deposits. Among the skeletons are the imperial mammoth, dire wolf, saber-toothed cat, American mastodon, ground sloth and a variety of extinct birds. Bones of more than 3,000 dire wolves have been recovered, making them the most abundant mammals found in the locality. Apparently, whole packs became mired when they tried to feed on animals stuck in the tar.

The museum's displays include reconstructed skeletons of saber-toothed cats, mammoths, wolves and other animals. There is a glass-walled laboratory where visitors can watch scientists and volunteers cleaning, sorting and identifying fossils.

The search for the fossils is a continuing project. One of the most important finds was made 10 years ago while Page was supervising the digging of the museum's foundation. The site appeared to have been a shallow tar pond near a stream. Here, instead of mixed bones, were articulated skeletons--with bones still joined together. Two saber-toothed cats, a dire wolf and two bison were uncovered. Other remains are still being identified. By microscopically studying the sediment and asphalt surrounding the bones, scientists were able to identify pollen, seeds and insects--providing a key to what those life forms were like thousands of years ago.

County's First Murder?

One curiosity of the La Brea discoveries is the remains of one human. The skull, jawbone and left femur of a young Chumash Indian-like woman were unearthed in 1914. Her death was apparently caused by a blunt instrument that crushed her skull. The remains were radiocarbon dated at 9,000 years old. The skull of her pet dog was found beside her.

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