Fossil hunter finds dinos in the rough

Harley Garbani excused himself, ducked out of the room and returned with a savage set of 6-inch teeth and claws.

"Take a look," he said, displaying the finer, if sharper points of a Tyrannosaurus rex. "If he picks you up with these, you can kiss your butt goodbye."


That fate seems unlikely these days even if Garbani's home is more appropriate to, say, Jurassic Park than the trailer park in Hemet, Calif., where he lives. Moving from room to room is a journey of a few feet spanning millions of years.

On every shelf, in every drawer, in old cigar boxes lie bones, skulls, teeth and horns along with hundreds of early Indian artifacts. Battered journals chronicling a lifetime of discoveries are piled in closets.


For decades this 84-year-old plumber-turned-fossil hunter has prowled North America's deserts and badlands searching for that odd glint or sparkle in the sandstone, the protruding bone or sun-blasted skull.

He has staked out anthills, relieving the insects of tiny prehistoric teeth they were lugging to their nests. He has dug up duck-billed dinosaurs. He has unearthed woolly mammoths in Baja California, and he has sweet-talked wary ranchers into letting him scour their land for bones.

In 1966, Garbani found the world's third and most complete T. rex, a fierce looking skeleton now locked in mortal combat with a triceratops in the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. He discovered the triceratops as well.

Along the way, the painfully humble, slightly stooped collector has become a paradox - one of the nation's foremost paleontologists who isn't a paleontologist, an amateur whose work dwarfs that of professionals.

"I don't like the word amateur," said Bill Clemons, a curator at the Berkeley Museum of Paleontology and longtime friend. "He's an avocationist."

Whatever the term, Garbani is revered by scientists who speak in near mystical terms of his facility for finding fossils.

"I am not a superstitious person, but Harley has a sixth sense about where things are found," said David Archibald, a professor of biology at San Diego State University who has worked with Garbani. "I have seen him walk along and find a 1-inch jawbone."

Paleontologist Lowell Dingus, a research associate at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, devoted a chapter to Garbani in a book about dinosaur hunting.


"He has figured out from his decades of experience which kinds of beds, which kinds of rocks to look into to find fossils," he said. "He is a remarkable collector, the best I have seen in the field, by far."

While there may be a bit of intuition involved, Garbani's gifts more likely spring from a keen eye honed growing up on a ranch near Gilman Hot Springs in the San Jacinto Valley.

There at age 8 he made his first find.

"It was a large point, like part of a knife or spear," he recalled. "I was trying to catch a pony, and I came across it. I was hooked ever since."

When his dad drove an earthmover, Harley followed to see what it would kick up. One day something big and white emerged.

"It was petrified bone, a femur. It came from a very large camel from the Pleistocene age," he said. "I was 9 and had a collection going."


He amassed dozens of smooth, hand rocks used by early Indians to grind acorns and chisel arrowheads.

As he grew older, Garbani began hunting fossils in Anza Borrego Desert State Park. He found prehistoric camels, ancient fish, mastodons, enormous birds, saber-toothed cats and a giant ground sloth with its desiccated hide attached.

Elsewhere, he found scattered pot fragments and painstakingly reassembled them. The result is one of California's most complete collections of about 75 Indian pots, or ollas, experts say.

Garbani's tactics were fairly elementary. He looked for what didn't belong in a landscape. He scanned the geology. For human artifacts, he sought out water or remnants of water - dry stream or lake beds. For fossils, he headed for badlands and sediments.

His eyes did the rest.

"Once you find your first fossil, your eye will focus and will know what to look for," he said. "It was just a hobby. I was a plumber for 12 years in San Jacinto and made a living at that. Whenever I had free time, I'd go out."


He was often accompanied by his sons, David and James.

Garbani gave his fossils to the Anza Borrego visitor's center, which handed many over to the Natural History Museum.

Impressed, the museum hired Garbani in 1965 to locate its first T. rex. He quit plumbing and headed off with his family to eastern Montana to begin digging.

In the little town of Jordan, Mont., Garbani hung out at Hell Creek Bar, where he employed charm and free booze to loosen up ranchers before questioning them about the local landscape.

Apparently everyone in town had seen dinosaur bones. Rancher after rancher was soon inviting Garbani around to show off discoveries. Many were impressive, but none belonged to T. rex, the voracious 20-foot-high, 40-foot-long carnivore whose name means "tyrant lizard king."

Then Garbani met Lester Engdahl, who described some odd bones he had seen around his ranch. Garbani immediately began searching the area. One day he spotted a toe bone sticking up from the bank of a river.


It was July 27, 1966. He recorded the momentous discovery in one of his journals.

It took two years to extract the bones from rock, but what emerged was one of the best-preserved specimens of T. rex ever found. Its 5-foot skull and legs were largely intact. There were also ribs and jawbone full of jagged teeth.

By now Garbani was working full time for the museum with a mission to locate and prepare skeletons and fossils.

"Harley is remarkable at preparing bones," said Mike Greenwald a research scientist at the Museum of Geology in Rapid City, S.D.

Seven prehistoric animals have been named for him, including Geomys garbanii, an ancient pocket gopher; Elomeryx garbanii, a kind of hippopotamus; and Thecelosaurus garbanii, an ostrich-like dinosaur.

More recently, he agreed to lend his collection to the new Western Center for Archeology & Paleontology in Hemet, not far from his home.


Garbani's wife, Mary, an avid collector herself, is his biggest fan.

"Harley is the most modest man I have ever known," she said. "And he has nothing to be modest about."

David Kelly writes for the Los Angeles Times.