August 3, 2010

Bones, Bones, and More Bones” Day

On this day in 1769, a Spanish expedition encountered the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles, becoming the first Europeans known to have seen them. The “tar” pits are actually pools of naturally-occurring asphalt that bubbles up from an underground oil field. Long ago water would cover the asphalt in some of the pits, and animals going down to the pools to drink would sometimes become trapped, die, and sink.

Luckily for us, the asphalt preserved the bones of these creatures!

Since the early 1900s, the bones of many different creatures have been excavated from the “tar” pits. The most dramatic are the huge mammoth skeletons, but there are also sabertooth cats, ground sloths, bison, camels, horses, elk, deer, peccaries, pronghorns, bears, “big cats,” dire wolves, raccoons, skunks, and many other animals. Of course there are also small animals and microfossils.

(At right are just some of the dire wolf skulls that have been pulled from the pit.)

Only one human skeleton has ever been found. It belonged to a woman who lived about nine thousand years ago and who was probably murdered by a blow to her head.

On this day in 1908, a nearly complete skeleton of a Neanderthal man was discovered in a cave in France. (The cave was in La Chapelle-aux-Saints, France.) Two brothers, Amedee and Jean Bouyssonie, made the discovery. The skeleton they found is called the “Old Man” because that particular Neanderthal lived to be very old, at least by the standards of his time. (It was hard for me to find and confirm how old this Neanderthal man was when he died, but, according to a few sources, this old, old man was 50 years old when he died. In other words, younger than yours truly!)

Most sources, when searched for how old the “Old Man” specimen is, come back with 50 to 60 THOUSAND years old! Now that's an old man! (Neanderthals lived from 130,000 years ago to 30,000 years ago.)

The “Old Man” was the first relatively complete Neanderthal skeleton that scientists had access to. A paleontologist named Marcellin Boule studied the specimen and did a reconstruction showing Neanderthals as standing in a somewhat-crouching position and moving in a stooped, shuffling, “brutish” way. Scientists no longer accept this analysis and now portray Neanderthals as much more upright and much more like modern humans.

There are apparently two reasons for Boule's mistaken ideas. First, the “Old Man” suffered from a degenerative disease and therefore was more stooped and crouched-over than young, healthy Neanderthals. Second, Boule probably expected and even wanted to discover a brutish creature, and so he interpreted the skeleton with those expectations in mind.

Investigate the La Brea Tar Pits and La Chapelle-aux-Saints.

It's still happening!

My sister lives near the La Brea Tar Pits, and I often see the large pool, now fenced off for our safety, complete with heart-rending statues of a mammoth family divided because one of the creatures is trapped in the asphalt. (These statues used to upset me so much when I was a kid!) Several other pits are also fenced off or otherwise protected from random passers-by, including a pit that is currently being excavated by volunteers under the supervision of paleontologists. There are exhibits and windows associated with some of the pits.

It's all very interesting.

But what's really weird is that, when we walk along the paths or in the grass near the various museums and exhibits, we sometimes see tiny new pools of asphalt and oil and methane bubbling up out of the lawn. Aaaa!

I imagine very small creatures and insects are still getting trapped in these tiny new pools!

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