An Ice Age Snapshot, Preserved in L.A. Goo With help from a dedicated cadre of volunteers, paleontologists at the La Brea Tar Pits in the heart of Los Angeles continue to excavate the remains of saber tooth cats, dire wolves and other creatures from the Ice Age that ruled the region more than 40,000 years ago.
NPR logo

An Ice Age Snapshot, Preserved in L.A. Goo

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
An Ice Age Snapshot, Preserved in L.A. Goo

An Ice Age Snapshot, Preserved in L.A. Goo

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Michele Norris. Imagine spending a hot day at the bottom of a deep hole that smells like an oil can. You're surrounded by layers of sticky black goo that clings to you and everything else it touches, and you're loving every minute of it.

That describes the way some people in Los Angeles are spending the summer, at the city's famous La Brea Tar Pits. As NPR's Mandalit del Barco reports, they're looking for bones of creatures that haven't walked the earth since the last Ice Age.


At a park along Wilshire Boulevard, in the middle of L.A., 11-year-olds Lane Kendall(ph) and Darby Henry(ph) mull over a lake of bubbling black asphalt.

Unidentified Boy #1: It smells really bad.

Unidentified Boy #2: Uh-huh.

Unidentified Boy #1: It looks really gooey.

Unidentified Boy #2: Yeah. I could imagine the animals getting stuck in it.

DEL BARCO: Here at the La Brea Tar Pits, a replica wooly mammoth raises its trunk as if trapped in the methane ooze, the sort of thing that happened nearly 40,000 years ago when Ice Age animals roamed the area. Page Museum Curator John Harris says it was cooler and more humid then, more like today's San Francisco, with asphalt boiling up from a petroleum reservoir.

Mr. JOHN HARRIS (Curator, Page Museum): A bison, or a horse, or a ground sloth or a camel would inadvertently step on this and they would become stuck, just like a fly on a flypaper, and so this would attract the local carnivores and in would come the saber-toothed cats and the dire wolves and the lions to feed off the remains, and of course they would get stuck in turn.

And then down would come the vultures and the birds of prey, and they, too, would get stuck, and in come the flies to feed off them, and they get stuck.

DEL BARCO: What remains of the creatures is a gloppy soup of bones, which is still being excavated by professional and amateur paleontologists all these year later. Thirteen and a half feet below the surface, in La Brea Pit 91, Samantha Green(ph) and two volunteers lie on their stomachs to reach into the muck. Their jeans and T-shirts are filthy, their bare hands seeped in prehistoric glop and gunk, smelling like rotten eggs.

Ms. SAMANTHA GREEN (Excavator, La Brea Tar Pits): You get used to it. I mean, some days are stinkier than others. The warmer it is, the more seepage, the smellier it gets. You'll notice, though, it sort of clings to you.

DEL BARCO: In a notebook, Green jots down precise measurements, while Zoe Kaplan(ph) and Sara Cohen pull out specimens with tiny dental instruments.

Unidentified Woman #1: We have the hip of a saber-tooth cat.

DEL BARCO: You just found that?

Unidentified Woman #1: Yeah, it just came loose.

Unidentified Woman#2: We have a more exciting chunk next to it than that.

DEL BARCO: I can see bones sticking out.

Unidentified Woman #1: Actually, you can see here, it's in this corner right here. The larger bone is a humorous of a juvenile saber-tooth cat. We have a dire wolf rib that's sticking out of the west wall.

Unidentified Woman #2: And over here, this is actually a larger chunk of giant ground sloth pelvis.

DEL BARCO: Kaplan and Cohen are among a team of volunteers working this summer. They earned their way to Pit 91 after spending hundreds of hours in the Page Museum lab, scrutinizing prehistoric sediment and polishing bone. Kaplan, who's 17, is contemplating whether to become an archeologist. She's excited about going back to the lab with her latest discoveries.

Ms. SARA KAPLAN (Volunteer, La Brea Tar Pits): We're going to have like a nice shiny piece of bone, and just lots of satisfaction from that. Knowing that you dug it up, it's pretty cool. You're like a part of history, you know?

DEL BARCO: Since 1915, scientists have discovered more than 650 species of animals and plants at Pit 91, reputed to be the world's only Ice Age paleontological dig in a major city. Every summer they find thousands more bones, fossilized seeds, and microscopic organisms. Museum Collection Manager Chris Shaw(ph) says they pull out as many as 50 specimens a day.

Mr. CHRIS SHAW (Collection Manager, Page Museum): That thrill of discovery, of uncovering something that hasn't seen the light of day for 38,000 years or so, is really an exciting thing to do.

Mr. HARRIS: This is arguably one of the richest Ice Age fossil sites in the world.

DEL BARCO: Curator John Harris says Pit 91 is giving scientists a glimpse of what Los Angeles was like 40,000 years ago.

Mr. HARRIS: You have the end of the last Ice Age and global warming, and perhaps we can seek to find a direct parallel between what happened then and what's happening now. If global warming goes on the way it does, this is going to be under water, as it was 100,000 years ago.

DEL BARCO: From the excavated finds, scientists have already recreated a Pleistocene garden at the La Brea Tar Pits, with redwoods and sycamores, a prehistoric set more realistic than anything found on a nearby Hollywood lot. Mandalit del Barco, NPR News, Los Angeles.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.