Forget boomers versus millennials – the generation who really screwed us over was the one who lived about 4,000 years ago. Know why? Because they had mammoths, and we don’t.
But we could! At long last, technology has advanced far enough to virtually “bring back” long-extinct animals like the mammoth, saber-toothed cat, dire wolf, and nearly a dozen more prehistoric species.
In a new paper published in the journal Palaeontologia Electronica, experts from the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County and La Brea Tar Pits, in collaboration with researchers and designers at the University of Southern California (USC), have described just why and how they created these metaverse megafauna.
“Paleoart can be very influential in how the public, and even scientists, understand fossil life,” said Dr. Emily Lindsey, Assistant Curator at La Brea Tar Pits and senior author of the study.
Rancho La Brea, more commonly known as the La Brea Tar Pits, is one of the most famous examples in the world of what paleontologists know as a “lagerstätte” – a fossil site of extraordinarily well-preserved remains. It sits right in the middle of Los Angeles, and has been home to paleoart for decades.
Well before the museum that now stands there was built, the paper notes, there were “sculptures of saber-toothed cats, American lions, short-faced bears, and giant ground sloths… to show visitors what the area might have looked like during the Ice Age,” and “[a] tableau sculpted by Howard Ball in 1968 of a female Columbian mammoth sinking into the asphalt while her worried mate and offspring look on… is one of the most iconic pieces of public artwork in Los Angeles.”
Initially, the researchers were interested in the importance of paleoart – art that recreates or imagines extinct life from prehistory – and what the impact of augmented reality would be on museum learning. But they quickly ran into a problem: nobody had created any scientifically accurate Ice Age animals for the metaverse yet.
As they soon realized, that would be just the beginning of the problems with current paleoart.
“The paleoart created for La Brea Tar Pits spans a wide range of scientific accuracy and artistic value,” laments the paper. “Harlan’s ground sloth is reconstructed with a worryingly inconsistent number of toes, one mural features flamingoes gracefully wading into asphalt pools despite the fact that they are not known from Ice Age or present-day California, a newer mural botches perspective to present western camels that are only half their true size.”
Even the iconic mammoth sculpture is misleading, “reinforc[ing] the misconception that animals sunk into deep asphalt pools like quicksand,” the authors explain. In fact, they write, “most asphalt seeps were probably only a few centimeters deep and trapped animals more like sticky fly paper … The Lake Pit itself isn’t even a natural seep, but the remains of a nineteenth century asphalt mining operation.”
Clearly, if the researchers were to do metaverse paleoart justice, it would be a huge academic undertaking.
“We think paleoart is a crucial part of paleontological research,” said lead author Dr Matt Davis. “That’s why we decided to publish all the scientific research and artistic decisions that went into creating these models. This will make it easier for other scientists and paleoartists to critique and build off our team’s work.”
The new thirteen virtual species are based on the very latest scientific research, hopefully correcting some of the misconceptions that have been spread by lesser paleoart. While they don’t look one hundred percent lifelike – they’re designed in a blocky, polygonal style to make them simple enough to run on a normal cell phone – the animals move, interact with each other, and even roar.
“The innovation of this approach is that it allows us to create scientifically accurate artwork for the metaverse,” said study co-author Dr William Swartout, “without overcommitting to details where we still lack good fossil evidence.”
The teams hope that their approach – using academic rigor and peer review to inform the artistic decisions, rather than the other way around – will influence future paleoartists and bring more respect to the subject as a whole.
More than that, though, they hope to provide new perspectives on these ancient animals – and to see the animals for yourself, just follow the instructions below.
If you have Snapchat, scan the snapcodes here to experience a saber-toothed cat, dire wolf, Shasta ground sloth, Harlan’s ground sloth, American lion, Columbian mammoth, American mastodon, Western camel, ancient bison, dwarf pronghorn, Western horse, teratorn, and short-faced bear in AR.
Open Instagram and navigate to “Add to story.” Select “Camera.” In the camera mode, there is a carousel of AR effects immediately to the right of the recording button. Scroll all the way to the right to the “Browse effects” button. Clicking on it will open the Effect gallery. In the Effect gallery, search for any of the AR animals listed above to view the animal in Instagram.
If you have an iPhone or iPad, you can download the free Sketchfab app. Note that you do not need to create a Sketchfab account to use the app. Open the Sketchfab app and click on the menu to search for “La Brea”. Click on the “La Brea Tar Pits low poly Ice Age animals” collection by NHM.