story and photography by Jennifer Contreras
They sit there, unknown to the masses — brown and fragile to the touch-behind the creaky, steel door in a cold damp room made of stone. They sit there, untouched for almost 10 years, in plastic boxes, some in cigar boxes, wrapped in old newspaper. They sit there with labels like “Camel,” “Wolf” and “S.T. Tiger,” underneath the trademark steps of Founders Hall, in the room that was once called “The Archives.” They sit there every day, without being acknowledged; their worth-priceless. They sit there, and when one flicks the light on, the room is filled with their presence, slapping visitors with a musty stench. And before any explanation is available, the curator flips open the lids to the boxes and inside are the bones . . . hundreds of them.
Flashback. Way, way back, 10,000 to 40,000 years ago, to the end of the late Pleistocene period of the Ice Age. Distinctive large land mammals roamed Los Angeles, “the City of Angels,” along with the rest of the continent. Mammoths, mastodons, camels, wolves, saber tooth lions, tigers and sloths were the residents. The climate was similar to present day, except that it had more moisture and could almost be called sub-tropical. Animals were drawn to the marshes seeking water, and, in one small place, often found themselves stuck in tar. Trapped small animals would attract larger predators into the marshes, leaving them also trapped in time forever. Or maybe not.
Flash forward – to the turn of the 20th century. The year: 1907. The place: the La Brea Tar Pits. Brea, Spanish for pitch or tar, was a place milked of its tar and combined with gravel to make asphalt for roofing. Dr. James Zacchaeous “J.Z” Gilbert, a biology teacher for 35 years, started digging in the Pits alongside his students from Los Angeles High School. What Gilbert discovered in the tar of Los Angeles was beyond the belief of anyone. He pulled a skull he identified as a pre-historic bison from the muck. Today, he is credited with being the first person to dig and identify fossil bones in the tar pits. Due to his discovery, Gilbert is known amongst paleontologists worldwide. A plaque, dedicated to him and other noted contributors to the pits, greets visitors at the tar pit’s George C. Page Museum. Today, visitors come from miles around to see the famous site at the corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Curson Avenue; schools organize field trips to see the pits and studies continue to occur.
According to Dr. Robert Neher, ULV professor of biology, and chairman of the Natural Science Division, the Los Angeles Museum of Natural History was founded and built to store the fossils. Gilbert donated the best fossils to the museum and kept the rest, eventually donating his collection to ULV in the 1940s. This gave the University the largest collection of tar pit artifacts aside from the museum.
Christopher Shaw, paleontologist and collection manager at the Page Museum, expressed that after the initial diggings of Gilbert, a team of paleontologists organized a major excavation in 1908 and found somewhere between 200-300 fossil specimens. “The group went to the board of supervisors of the city of Los Angeles with the fossils and with a collection of bird eggs and insects, to petition for funding. The board allocated the group money to build the Natural History Museum,” explains Shaw. “This early collection was pivotal to the development of the museum.”
In the late 1940s, the bones were donated to La Verne College, and they sat in wooden orange crates and cigar boxes. The college, because it was founded by the Church of the Brethren, attracted Gilbert. Aside from being a high school biology teacher, he was also a Church of the Brethren pastor, whose involvement in the study of evolution was looked down upon by his faith. Members of the Church believed in the biblical concept of time going back only 6,000 years, and Gilbert was exploring artifacts that date back farther than that. The concept of time or life existing before the Bible was one considered foreign. However, Gilbert shunned the criticism and continued to pursue his study. “The Brethren didn’t believe in evolution, so this was revolutionary. Their general belief was that life was created,” Dr. Neher says. “He still preached on Sundays, though. He probably felt guilty.”
Gilbert came to La Verne College as a substitute teacher in the late 1940s and taught for a semester. When he left, he gave the University most of the materials that he saved. Years after the boxes of bones arrived at ULV, most of the bones were moved into bigger plastic crates, while some continue to be stored in cigar boxes.
“He put together five complete saber-tooth tiger skeletons and gave one to ULV, and the other four to McPherson College in Kansas, the University of Dublin, University of Berlin and the La Brea Tar Pits. So they are scattered all around the world. To have one of J.Z.’s original skeletons is quite a remarkable and beautiful thing,” Dr. Neher says. The saber-toothed tiger is on display in the Jaeger Museum on the top floor of the Mainiero Building at the ULV campus.
When Dr. Neher became a ULV faculty member in 1958, he took notice that these historically relevant artifacts had gone untouched. As a result, he took over the responsibility of the care and overseeing of the fossils and became their curator. “When I came here, I realized what a treasure we had. I didn’t know what to do. For years they hadn’t been cataloged,” he says.
Despite his realization, it was not until the 1970s that Dr. Neher decided to utilize these “treasures.” However, his Department did not have the space or resources to catalog or to record the identifiable fossils. Determined to investigate the fossils, Neher took the bones to a local chapter of the Archaeological Survey Association. Once there, the activity of cataloging the fossils served as a lab for science students and also gave the fossils an identity. “These animals lived in a time where Southern California was a tropical region. It was a wild and exciting time, geologically and biologically,” explains Dr. Neher, who thought that having these artifacts was an honor and for them to go unidentified was a shame. In 1974 the ASA chapter relocated, and it became no longer feasible to keep the fossils with the organization. Dr. Neher and his students had no choice but to bring them back on campus and store them underneath the stairs of Founders Hall. The room is called, “The Archives” because it was once used to store excess ULV records.
“We brought them back, and since then we haven’t had people interested in working on them. It’s very frustrating; we’ll never be sure if we have all of them [identified],” he says with disappointment.
In 1988, the Gilbert family signed over the rest of J.Z.’s collection to ULV. This contribution made it certain that the University owned the largest collection of tar pit artifacts aside from the L.A. Museum of Natural History. “It gave us a more clear title to the fossils, as where before it was unofficial,” says Dr. Neher.
Nevertheless, it was almost a decade ago, in the early 1990s, when the bones were last touched. At their last encounter with human hands, Dr. Neher conducted more cataloging and caretaking, which has been the extent of it thus far. He suggests that the reason for the bones’ now stagnant history is that there are no students who know about these artifacts and also because of the lack of resources and space. “For work like this, you need space, and here at the ULV campus, we simply don’t have it,” he states.
Dr. Neher has researched possible uses for the bones and says museums have offered to take the bones in return for replicas. However, he does not think a deal like this would be the best option for the bones or for ULV. “They [scientists from the La Brea Tar Pits] came out and looked at what we have. But we own them so they have no rights to them,” declares Dr. Neher.
However Shaw explains that the Page Museum already has an extensive collection of hundreds of thousands of specimens from the Tar Pits. “The fact that there is a small collection in La Verne — in fact there are small collections all over the world-does not bother us,” remarks Shaw. “However, if they [ULV] were to dump them, we would take them out of La Verne’s’ hands because all of these items have scientific significance. We [George C. Page Museum] would probably have to work out a deal with La Verne, since we don’t really have a budget for these types of things, so a mutually agreeable situation would be worked out, and then the fossils could be prepared to be preserved at this museum.” Shaw is convinced that these artifacts are essential to science and should be preserved. Therefore, he believes that no matter where the bones are, they need to be held up to their potential in the name of science. “People don’t want to destroy scientific information for the sake of destroying it. And if they do, that is what museums are there for,” he notes.
Aside from their scientific worth, ULV could literally be sitting on a gold mine of artifacts. “The teeth alone are expensive. We don’t feel like selling them is what should be done though. J.Z. would have liked to have them used scientifically,” confesses Dr. Neher.
Shaw adds that it is not the policy of the Page Museum to put price evaluations on the fossils and says, “These fossils are priceless.”
Further uses of the fossils have not been determined. Even the archaeological program at ULV has no use for the fossils because archaeologists — as opposed to paleontologists — study humans. A merger between the two programs has never been discussed. “Archaeology is the study of human cultural remains, and physical anthropology is the study of human fossils,” explains Dr. Kimberly Martin, behavioral science professor and director of the archeological program. The program has its own collection of artifacts from various archaeology digs from La Verne and San Dimas. “We have two collections. The Mud Springs Collection consists of about 10,000 primarily stone artifacts [tools] that are all from human occupation sites in the La Verne and San Dimas area. That collection is approximately 2,000 to 8,000 years old,” Dr. Martin says. “The Lordsburg College Collection consists of all of the material that was discarded during the first 25 years of the existence of the University.” It includes 20 boxes of household and kitchen artifacts from the early trash dump-bottles, jewelry, remains of food items such as rib bones and sunflower seeds, parts of toys, science lab materials, pencil leads, slate chalkboards and parts of shoes.
Nonetheless, Dr. Martin emphasized that she thinks that having all of these collections available to students and the community would only be to the benefit of the institution. She, like Dr. Neher, expressed the need for more resources at ULV. “I would love to have these, and other kinds of collections from both the Natural Sciences and the Anthropology program be available for display and study by students and the public. We do not currently have the space and do not anticipate getting the funding to create the space for such a facility in the near future.”
The journey that these fossils have taken is still not complete. Their future may lead scientists to new interpretations of the past. Now, they pause on that trip, resting in boxes hidden under the Founders Hall stairs, waiting to tell their story about a time long ago.