20 October 2010

La Brea Tar Trip

I had the day off from my job today, and with a major writing project recently finished, I wanted a break. My kind of break: a trip to the George C. Page Museum of La Brea Discoveries in Hancock Park. A.k.a. “The Page Museum” or the plain old colloquial delight, “The La Brea Tar Pits.”

The Tar Pits is one of my favorite spots on the planet, and it reaches back to my earliest history of living in Los Angeles. The museum opened in 1977 to display the finds of Pleistocene mammals and birds found in the asphalt pits on Rancho la Brea. That was also the year my family moved to Los Angeles from Augusta, GA, when I was four years old. (No, I was not born in Georgia, by the way, but in Washington, D.C.) I probably first visited the Page Museum in 1978, so it’s quite fair to say that the museum and I grew up together—although it would also be fair to say that the museum hasn’t really grown, since as I walk through it today, it looks almost identical to when I first came in 1978. The words on the displays are still the same, even though some contain outdated information. One of the guides mentioned to me today that the skeleton marked as an “American lion” may be, according to the museum paleontologists, really an enormous jaguar.

I return to the museum at least once a year. I probably came three times a year when I was child; I could not get enough of the ancient mammals, and often begged my parents to take me. I loved dinosaurs obsessively (most children do, it is a genetic condition and probably necessary for our survival to adulthood), but it never disappointed me that the Page Museum had no dinosaurs, but instead mammals from a much more recent era: 40,000 to 10,000 years ago. However, the museum apparently worried that many children would feel disappointed to find no dinosaurs in the museum (the website even has a page devoted to this apparent “absence”), so a special theater was set up to show a loop of a video about dinosaurs. The “Dinosaur Theater” is no longer there, nor the animatronic carnosaur outside, and the theater shows a film about the La Brea excavations. I think the change happened many years ago, however—this isn’t the first time I’ve seen the diorama of a saber-tooth cat attacking a Shasta groundsloth that is currently standing outside the theater.

Another change I’ve noted on this trip: the case with “La Brea Woman” in it, the only human skeleton excavated from the pits (probably a victim of homicide), has vanished. I wonder why. Inside the museum, it is easy for visitors who know little about the Pleistocene to miss the fact that there were humans, fully evolved Homo sapiens living among the megafauna by around 12,000 B.P. These were the ancestors of all Native North American tribes, given the hypothetical name “The Clovis Culture.”

But most everything else is still here, and still in the same spot. The mural that decorated the original small museum in a high school greets you as you enter, and then looming right before you is the first skeleton, the Harlan’s ground gloth, and next to it the Antique bison. A twelve-foot Columbian mammoth still towers in the rotunda at the second turn of the square exhibit, made more magnificent by the great loops of its tusks that stretch out over the wall surrounding his exhibit. The tusks seems much smaller to me as an adult, although still impressive. As a child, they were like the arms of giant reaching out across the whole museum.

Perhaps my favorite site in the museum hasn’t changed at all: a wall, orange back-lit, of four hundred and four dire wolf skulls (Canis dirus), a sample of the sixteen hundred of the animals found in the pits, the largest number of any animal discovered in Rancho La Brea. (The Antique bison has the best representation of herbivores.) I adore wolves, they are my favorite extant animal, and so the larger and heavy ancestors with the killer name of “dire” hold an immense fascination for me.

What the Page Museum represents, above all, is a reminder that it is only a geological blink of an eye between modern Los Angeles, and a Los Angeles resembling something out of an Edgar Rice Burroughs novel. Only 12,000 years ago—nothing in the great time span of life on earth—North America was filled with an amazing biodiversity. Paleontologist Peter D. Ward describes the world that the La Brea discoveries reveal in his book The Call of Distant Mammoths:
. . . there were great beasts in plentitude: saber-tooth tigers and wild horses, giant ground sloths and camels, hippos and lions and enormous scavenging condors, great bears and giant wolves—a vast diversity of a kind associated only with Africa. Most splendid of all, the urban metropolis of Los Angeles was then populated by great herds of giant, now-extinct mastodons and mammoths. The area was thus home to some of the largest land mammals the world has ever seen, the biggest animals to walk the earth since the time of the dinosaurs.
All of the animals in that list appear in the Page Museum’s exhibits, by the way.

And then, somewhere between 12,000 and 10,000 B.P., this megafauna went extinct. Climate Change? Or Overkill? The debate goes on. But in North America we live in the shadow of a recent extinction of enormous scale. The closeness of this world, its astonishing and almost fantastical environment, and its rapid elimination, make for one of the amazing tales of life on this planet.
Unfortunately, the museum seems to need a bit more funding; places on the wall, floors, and within the exhibit cases have started to look shabby. Some of the gleam is off over the thirty-plus years. I don’t advocate changing much to the museum’s exhibits or even its layout: the square design, the access to the paleontology labs through windows (“The Fishbowl,” which had a staff of about seven at work today), and the quiet and non-distracting architecture are perfect. But some refurbishing would give it a new gloss. Most of the “new” material here are just posters tacked to the walls—more evidence to me that the museum doesn’t have the funding that it once did. That it should have.

There were no school groups in the museum today, which surprised me, since a Wednesday in October would seem to be the perfect time to bring elementary children in to show them the rich ancient history of their home city. It was sights like the Columbian mammoth, the “Pepper’s Ghost” illusion of a skeleton of a Smilodon californicus changing into a sculpture of what it may have looked life in the fur-and-flesh, the diorama of ranging Dire wolves woven amongst the actal remains that fired my imagination as a young boy . . . and definitely contributes to what I write today. Think of all the other careers that an early love the George C. Page Museum of La Brea Discoveries has led to over thirty-three years.

Ah, the Merriam’s Giant Condor is still hanging from the ceiling in the same place! I can still see my young self staring up at in amazement.