Friday, January 8, 2010

What's what at Rancho La Brea: here's a look at the Los Angeles areasome 9,000 years ago.

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An extraordinary number of plant and animal fossils have been excavated from the Rancho La Brea tar pits spanning the Late Pleistocene and Holocene epochs, from approximately 40,000 years ago to around 4,000 years ago. More than two million animal bones from more than 10,000 individual mammals have been recovered from the La Brea tar pits.

A highly unusual aspect of the La Brea fauna is that carnivores account for the largest group of large animals. The La Brea fauna is typical of the Late Pleistocene and includes dire wolf, coyote, a huge American lion, a saber-toothed cat, Pleistocene bears, pumas, and foxes. Paleontologists think that when animals visited the area to drink, they became mired in the asphalt. The numerous predators then closed in for the kill. In many cases, predators also became entombed in the tar, and they, too, became prey.

The Rancho La Brea fauna also includes a mastodon and a mammoth, ground sloths, horses, camels, tapirs, pigs, deer, bison, antelope, weasels, skunks, badgers, and rabbits. More than 130 species of large and small birds, snakes, lizards, frogs and toads, and insects have also been excavated.

The Only Human?

Only a single human fossil has been found in the tar pits--the skull of a woman, dated at around 9,000 years old. The "La Brea woman" was found with artifacts that are thought to be personal and ceremonial items and some asphalt collecting tools. Artifacts from La Brea number only about 50 items, spanning a time period of 4,000 years to 9,000 years ago.

The plants and animals from these tar pits offer evidence that the geography and environment of the Los Angeles Basin in the Late Pleistocene and Holocene were much like those of today. The presence of cypress, walnut, pine, and juniper trees indicates that temperatures were a bit cooler than those of the present. The presence of slugs, snails, freshwater clams, water beetles, and other invertebrates shows that the nearby streams and lakes in the Los Angeles Basin were carrying water from the Santa Monica Mountains to the Pacific Ocean, a few miles to the west.

Excavations at La Brea indicate that the fauna in the area, including the dire wolf, American lion, saber-toothed cat, mastodon, and mammoth, began to disappear around 11,000 years ago. By 1,000 years ago, the modern fauna appeared. Some scientists believe that the arrival of people from Asia, across the Bering Strait, contributed to the Holocene extinction of the large mammals. Others attribute the animal turnover to a change in climate after the last glacial period that led to changes in habitat.

Randall Susman, a professor of anatomical sciences at Stony Brook University, has studied pygmy chimpanzees in the Congo, early hominins from East and South Africa, and ape and human functional morphology.

Dr. Dig says:

Fauna refers to animals of a specific region or time period.

Paleontology refers to the branch of geology that deals with life forms from the past, especially prehistoric life forms, through the study of plant and animal fossils.

Today, the fossil animals and plants that have been excavated from Rancho La Brea since the early 1900s are housed in the George G. M Museum on Wilshire Boulevard. The museum houses more than 3 million animals and plant and serves as a major research and teaching institution. Visitors to the museum can watch as scientists prepare fossils.

Source Citation
Susman, Randall. "What's what at Rancho La Brea: here's a look at the Los Angeles area some 9,000 years ago." Dig Nov.-Dec. 2008: 20+. General OneFile. Web. 8 Jan. 2010. .

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