January 5, 1997 in Nation/World

L.A. Looks Beyond Surface, Finds Ancient Fossils

New York Times

The city where history is what happened last week, where schoolchildren are taken to turn-of-the-century buildings to be shown something old, is digging up a far richer heritage. It is marked by the bones of creatures that lived here long ago.

As construction workers tunnel underneath Los Angeles to expand its modest subway system, they are turning up unexpected treasures - fossils of mastodons, starfish, extinct bison and even camels.

“The L.A. area doesn’t have a lot of cultural artifacts that are as old as they are in other parts of the country,” said E. Bruce Lander, a paleontologist hired by the subway system. With the fossil finds, he said, “we have things going back 15 million years.”

At a subway station across the street from Universal Studios’ “Jurassic Park” ride, workers tunneling 60 feet below the surface found the oldest fossils: a few fish that swam there 12 million to 15 million years ago.

Below the car-choked avenues of nearby Hollywood, scientists found fossils of about 60 species of fish, all but one of them extinct. Most of them were deep-water creatures, including eels and lantern fish, entombed in a kind of rock aquarium estimated to be 7 million to 8-1/2 million years old. The remains showed that Hollywood was at least a half-mile underwater in the late Miocene epoch.

Some of the most spectacular finds underneath the city have come at the hands of one construction worker, Michael L. Guinther, an amateur anthropologist who operated a 300-foot-long tunnel-digging machine that looks like a giant backhoe inside a tin can.

While tunneling beneath Hollywood, he said, he periodically spotted bits of white, and jumped down to dig them out.

“One of them was a mastodon tooth,” Guinther said. “I also found a jaw from a camel.

“Under downtown L.A., right under the skyscrapers, that’s old ocean bed,” he continued. “We were finding old clam beds and seashells and stuff like that.”

Some newer fossils date to the end of the last ice age and show the climate of the Los Angeles area became much warmer and drier about 9,000 years ago. Fossilized pollen of a desert plant called Mormon, or Brigham, tea was found from that era. Mormon tea, a scrubby plant, still grows today, mainly in the central United States.

While scientists say the many fish fossils in the subway tunnels are important finds, the mammal bones pale in comparison with the fossils found in Rancho La Brea - Spanish for Tar Ranch - in Los Angeles.

The tar pits are the world’s richest source of fossils from the late Pleistocene and early Holocene epochs, running from 35,000 to 10,000 years ago. Their sticky pools have yielded the remains of 4,000 large carnivores, including saber-toothed tigers and other animals that roamed the earth long before cars became king of the road here.

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