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L.A. Woman

Why the skeleton found in the La Brea Tar Pits feels so familiar

August 20, 2006|Amy Wilentz

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.

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