Prehistoric Hollywood: The Fossil Finds Beneath The New Academy Museum

David Robb

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EXCLUSIVE: Beneath the many movie treasures that soon will be on display at the new Academy Museum lie much older relics – fossilized bone and plant fragments from the Ice Age. During excavation for the museum, paleontologists have found the partial remains of saber-toothed cats, dire wolves, bison, sloths and numerous other species that once roamed the marshes, forests and grasslands we now call the Miracle Mile.

The museum will make a full report of its findings early next year, but Deadline has been given a preview of the discoveries – bits and pieces of L.A.’s ancient past. See captioned photos of some of the fossils below.

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Carbon dating hasn’t been completed yet, but experts from the nearby museum at the La Brea Tar Pits believe that many of the fossils they’ve uncovered date from more than 20,000 years ago – long before the first humans arrived here. No human remains, or even a shard of pottery, were discovered during the dig.

“We recently received the material and have been working on it intensively since the end of summer,” said Dr. Regan Dunn, assistant curator at the La Brea Tar Pits. “In this area, you always have the possibility of running into fossils and our past inhabitants here. It’s just so cool to think about the greater Miracle Mile back so many thousands of years ago and what it looked like compared to what it looks like now.”

The $388 million museum was built on the bones of the old May Company building, which was constructed in 1939 at the corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue – just a few blocks from the fossil-rich Tar Pits. The museum project included the construction of a new Sphere Building, which required the demolition of a 1946 addition to the original building. The project retains many historic features of the May Company building – which later became the Saban Building – including the rehabilitation of its primary facades, while retrofitting the interior for museum use.

The new Sphere Building – under which many of the fossils were found – was built on the north side of the original building and includes a 42,300-square foot sphere housing the 1,000-seat David Geffen Theater, a 288-seat state-of-the-art Ted Mann Theater, and the rooftop Dolby Family Terrace with sweeping views of the Hollywood Hills. The museum hasn’t set an opening date but is expected to announce one soon.

Los Angeles 40,000 years ago, Dunn said, “would have been kind of scary. There were a lot of carnivores running around. You may think that Yellowstone is scary today, but this place would have been way scarier than that. There were a lot of saber-toothed cats running around eating everything, and there were also an awful lot of dire wolves. So you can think Game of Thrones – those big wolves. Those were real in the Pleistocene, and there were a lot of them. That’s our most common fossil. There were also short-faced bears, which were way bigger than today’s grizzly bears. There were other types of mean cats – and all these things were much bigger than our coyotes and mountain lions and bears. And there were huge herbivores running around, like herds of extinct species of bison and horses before they perished here in North America. And there were camels and, of course, mammoths and mastodons – families and herds of them living life in the Miracle Mile.”

“No new species have popped out yet,” she said. “We’ve also found freshwater clam and snail shells. They’re very nice and complete. The clams are the size of a silver dollar pancake. Also, a large fossil tree was recovered. It’s probably some kind of juniper or cypress tree. That’s a very interesting specimen as it preserves the growth rings, so we can look at what the climate was like during the lifetime of that tree. In diameter, the chunks are about 10-15 inches across.”

From 12,000 to 40,000 years ago, she said, the area was mixed forest and grassland. “It would have been cooler and wetter at that time – a swampy wetland in places, grassy woodlands in others, with denser forests in the higher areas. We didn’t have ice here in Los Angeles, but there was farther up north. For instance, the Space Needle would have been dwarfed by the amount of ice that was on Seattle at that time – 12,000 years ago. And much of the Midwest was under a sheet of ice.”

Her team, including Greg Davies, an assistant collections manager at the La Brea Tar Pits, didn’t find any large, intact skeletons of extinct mammals but rather some intact fossil bones and many more pieces of fossilized bone.

“The material is pretty fragmentary because that’s the way these deposits work,” Dunn said. “You have this tar on the surface in which animals get entrapped, die and decompose. Over time, all these bones can shift around and break over the thousands of years they’re sitting there in the deposit. And since the area is active tectonically, you might have shifts in the earth, and that can break some material and mix it all together. So you can get jumbled bits. What we have found are bison teeth, the ankle bone of a dwarf pronghorn antelope, saber-toothed cat material that’s also fragmentary – part of a tooth that’s broken off, Harlan’s giant ground sloth bones, Pacific Mastodon bits, a freshwater turtle and a raptor, like a hawk or small eagle.

“So far, we’ve prepared much of the material that was smaller in size,” Dunn said. “And we are now preparing the larger blocks of asphaltic sediment that contains intact material. There’s some good stuff in there – what maybe looks like a sloth shoulder or pelvis and lots of other whole bones. From this large block, we’ll get some great stuff – we anticipate that.”

About 700 pounds of fossil-bearing sediment that was carefully dug up from the museum construction site is currently under preparation at the La Brea Tar Pits museum, as was provided for in the environmental impact study (read it here) that included detailed plans to preserve the fossil record.

“The material,” Davies told Deadline, “is in the form of chunks and blocks of asphaltic-impregnated sediment, or ‘matrix’ as it is called in paleontological lingo. The individual sediment pieces range in size from a clenched fist to about small suitcase size. Numerous bits of animal bone project from the sediment blocks, intimating a rich bounty of Ice Age fossils.”

Those fossils, he said, “appear to be what is termed ‘secondarily asphaltic’ – in plain English, the animals likely died in a sandy or muddy, largely asphalt-free area, perhaps a floodplain or riverside setting, and their bones were invaded by asphalt later. This differs from the usual fossilization process at the La Brea Tar Pits, which are ‘primarily asphaltic’ – that is, the animals become directly entrapped in asphaltic (‘tar’) seeps.

“The secondarily asphaltic nature of the Academy Museum material means they were probably weathered and eroded by water and compaction to a greater degree than we see in La Brea fossils,” he said. “While this has resulted in fossils that are not in as immaculate condition as La Brea fossils usually are, it does give us a potentially exciting different perspective of the Hancock Park area. This is because a different depositional setting might give new clues on what the environment was like in Ice Age Los Angeles.”

Everything excavated is saved, he said, “even the ‘dirt’ from the matrix, which is undergoing further chemical treatment to disclose the presence of microfossils – the minute remains of insects, rodents, lizards and plants that are otherwise often overlooked because they are so small.”

Why so many Ice Age species went extinct is still subject to debate. “That’s the million-dollar question,” Dunn said. “It’s hotly debated. It’s been debated for over a hundred years. There’s two prevailing ideas, and one is that climate changed and made it inhospitable for animals; and of course, the other is that humans arrived and had a mass kill off. It’s not really a resolved question in the field. And there are some people who think that some combination of both climate change and over-hunting. So we don’t really know yet. We have a lot more research to do. I think La Brea Tar Pits has a lot to add to that story.”

And now the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures is adding to that story – the fossil record from beneath its soon-to-be-revealed treasure trove of movie memorabilia.

Here are some examples of the fossils unearthed at the site:

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