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Los Angeles' Tar Pits Tell The Tale Of Environmental Change

La Brea Museum's Lesson: A Changing Earth Is The Norm, Despite Our Attention To Greenhouse Gases Or Near-Extinct Species

Some 9,000 years ago, near what would eventually become the Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles, a young woman died, probably violently, possibly the first recorded homicide in the city's long history of violence. She was aged 18 to 25, about 4 feet 8 inches tall, and the fractures in her cranium may have been caused by a grinding stone found only 4 inches from her skeleton.

'La Brea Woman', as she is affectionately known, was discovered in 1914 at Tar Pit 10. Surely, she could never have imagined the Hancock Park of today, with its Farmers' Market, or Wilshire Boulevard's Miracle Mile, housing the prestigious County Museum of Art, an automotive museum, a museum of miniatures and a museum dedicated partly to herself. After all, her California had only just lost many of its Ice Age animals -- the dire wolf (Canis dirus; like the northern timber wolf), the American lion (Panthera leo atrox), and, most famous of all, the saber-toothed cat (Smilodon fatalis).

And yet, this was only 11,000 to 9,000 years ago.

The Los Angeles tar pits were first mentioned by explorer Gaspar de Portola on Aug. 3, 1769: "... we proceeded for three hours on a good road: to the right of it were extensive swamps of bitumen which is called 'chapapote'." Fellow explorer Jose Longinos Martinez later confirmed this report in 1792: "Near the Pueblo de Los Angeles more than twenty springs of liquid petroleum ...". The sources of this petroleum are the oil-bearing sands that lie beneath the area that was to become Rancho La Brea, a Mexican land grant, the petroleum welling up to the surface creating 'brea' (tar) pits, or, more accurately, asphalt seeps. An old photograph of 1914 still shows the landscape open and pitted, with the Salt Lake Oil Field and the Santa Monica Mountains in the background.

And why are the pits so famous? If you ever stepped into one, you would know all too well. The asphalt pulls you down, as it has thousands and thousands of animals during the last 40,000 years, providing one of the finest fossil records on Earth of the changing world from the end of the last Ice Age to the rise of modern humans. It is a remarkable story of trapped herbivores pounced on by unsuspecting carnivores, all sucked in together, becoming near-perfect specimens in the granular asphalt. Large and small alike suffered the same fate, from mammoths and mastodons, through tapirs and ground sloths, to weasels and ground squirrels.

And what story does this awesome record relate? It is a tale of change, of constant change, with only the adaptive surviving. Forty percent of the larger mammals are now extinct. The climate altered and became more seasonal; the vegetation changed; and humans brought with them new animals and new ways of living. There was no stability, no balance, no harmony of Nature, at any time; just change, change, change.

'Sustainability' was never an option. And the same tale continues with the human story, with the growth of Los Angeles, the postmodernist city par excellence. Rancho La Brea - first a supplier of bitumen, then a ranch, then an oil field, then a park and now a museum.

And even the museum fits the tale of change. The idea of a museum was first put forward by Capt. G. Allen Hancock in 1916 when he deeded Rancho La Brea to the County of Los Angeles. The museum only became a reality in the 1970s through the talents of a typical, self-made, American entrepreneur, George C. Page. Brought up in rural Nebraska, Page once tasted a sweet orange, and he never looked back.

At 16, Page left home and moved to Southern California, where he founded Mission Pak, a company that came to specialize in newfangled packaging -- packaging that enabled him to ship the fruits of the Golden State to many other boys in colder climes. It was a great success, and he went on to develop a sports car plant and industrial parks. And then, also in the great American tradition, he turned philanthropist and built the George C. Page Museum of La Brea Discoveries, a temple to change and to adaptation and entrepreneurship through time.

Every child should visit this wonderful museum, if only to see for themselves that change is the norm - past, present, and future. And we survive this change, not by trying to 'stop-the-world-and-get-off', but by adaptability, flexibility, dynamism, drive and initiative.

Whatever we do to the human emissions of greenhouse gases, for example, climate will still change, as it did back then. Also, extinction is a part of life and death, as it always has been and always will be. And we would surely be as shocked as the young woman of La Brea by the Los Angeles that will someday occupy Hancock Park, 9,000 years hence. It is quite simply beyond our imagination.

Change is not just about dinosaurs, 65,000,000 years ago. I find it deeply depressing that La Brea has to offer a dinosaur exhibition just in case visitors find the changing reality of the last 40,000 years, and of the present, and of the future too uninteresting or too difficult to grasp. They had better grasp it - if only to survive. We humans must emulate the fox and the raccoon, not the panda and the giant ground sloth.

[First published as an Opinion Article by BridgeNews. © BridgeNews 2000 and Philip Stott 2003]

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