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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

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.

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