La Verne Magazine
Hidden Treasures Beneath the Stairs: ULV's Rare Bones
story and photography by Jennifer Contreras
Caretaker of the prehistoric bones beneath the Founders Hall stairs since
1958, Dr. Robert Neher, ULV chair of the Natural Science Division, hopes
they will be used for future research.
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
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,"
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
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.
Stacks of boxes full of prehistoric fossils from the La Brea Tar Pits
line the walls of the the "Archives" room.Stacks of boxes full
of prehistoric fossils from the La Brea Tar Pits line the walls of the the