The World of Charles R. Knight

Scientists, Artists Explore Ice Age Los Angeles
by Mike O'Sullivan

Not far from the heart of Los Angeles lie the La Brea tar pits, where scientists are uncovering fossil remains from the prehistoric past. The adjacent Page Museum is showcasing the finds in scientific displays and works of art.

Page Museum administrator Jim Gilson says the most important Ice Age fossil site in the world lies in the middle of a busy business district. "And it's right here off of Wilshire Boulevard near downtown Los Angeles, so people can come right here and see what life was like 10 or 14-thousand years ago, when saber-tooth cats were standing where we're standing, when they we feeding on trapped mastodons and sloths, and bears were feeding on them. And vultures were feeding on them. And an entire ecosystem was trapped in the tar right here in the middle of Los Angeles," he says.

More than one-million fossils have been found in these tar pits, where Ice Age animals were preserved in the asphalt that still oozes to the surface from underground oil deposits. Behind the museum, the pit under excavation, called Pit 91, has yielded 70,000 fossils. Page Museum chief curator John Harris says the plant and animal evidence shows what life what like from 10,000 to 40,000 years ago.

At the time, the weather was cooler, and there were several distinct habitats: along the coast, in the mountains, and here in the basin. He says the immediate area was covered with sagebrush, and was rich with wildlife. "And in that sagebrush scrub, you had mammoths and mastodons. You had dire wolves and saber-tooth cats, American lions, short-faced bears, camels, llamas, and horses and giant ground sloths. And those were just the larger things," he says.

There were birds and rodents as well.

Inside the museum, mounted skeletons give an idea of what the animals looked like. But art by people called "paleo-artists" gives a more vivid picture. At the center of the exhibit are works by Charles R. Knight, who was active in the first half of the 20th century. He created lasting impressions of prehistoric animals, including Ice Age mammoths and mastodons, and much older dinosaurs.

His classic image of the La Brea Tar Pits appeared in most science textbooks in the 1920s and later. The Page Museum's Jim Gilson says Knight was the first artist to think about these animals in their environment. "His information came from the best scientists of the day. He spent years working with paleontologists in the laboratories of the American Museum of Natural History, going to the zoos in New York and Chicago to study the living relatives of extinct animals, so that he could literally flesh out in painting and in sculptures, what prehistoric animals that no one had really seen, what they might have looked like, how they might have interacted," he says.

Rhoda Knight Kalt, the granddaughter of the artist, says her grandfather's images of the prehistoric world have inspired movie makers, and says scientists, including the late biologist and writer Stephen Jay Gould, have said Charles Knight brought these fossils alive for them. "He made them become living creatures through studying the anatomy intricately of the living creature today. Even as a little girl I remember, it would be nothing to stand two-and-a-half hours while a paleontologist from the American Museum of Natural History would explain something to him. And then studying, let's say, if he was doing a saber-tooth [cat], the big cat of today and how they walked and how they moved and how they held their head. And the combination of the science with what he observed today, he was able to put flesh and skin on the fossils, and make them come alive," she says.

Artist Mark Hallett says he is following in the footsteps of the earlier paleo-artist by using the best scientific data available. He consults with scientists in the course of his research, and sometimes travels. "I've been to Africa once to actually see animals in Tanzania and Kenya that would have looked very much like the ancient animals of Western North America during the Ice Age. Elephants are wonderful stand-ins for mammoths," he says.

He says scientific knowledge about the Ice Age has expanded. His picture of the tar pits, on display in the exhibition, shows more animals interacting than were seen in the earlier work by artist Knight. Mr. Hallett says his paintings are based on a modern understanding of the vibrant environment of the Ice Age.

Like Charles Knight before him, he believes the prehistoric world holds a lesson for us. "We look around and we see the skeletons of saber-tooth cats and mammoths and we wonder at them, and yet we have equally wonderful animals that are around today that are equally in danger of disappearing forever. So hopefully we can make that connection and try to save what we have now, so we won't end up with a series of skeletons for future generations," he says.

The summer excavation at the La Brea Tar Pits will continue through early September. The exhibit Bringing Fossils to Life: The Art of Charles R. Knight will appear at the Page Museum through next January.

The World of Charles R. Knight

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