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Year of the Ox

Celebrate the 2021 Lunar New Year with 21 highlights from the collection

illustration of ox

21 Highlights for 2021, Year of the Ox

The Lunar New Year 2021 ushers in the Year of the Ox, which is celebrated in many Asian countries such as China, Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Malaysia.  To celebrate the Lunar New Year, we searched the collections of the Natural History Museum, La Brea Tar Pits & Museum, and the William S. Hart Museum for objects and specimens from around the world connected to the ox and its close relatives-- and we found 21 objects in honor of 2021! 

We invite you to learn more about the zodiac, dive into what defines the term “ox,” and travel through our collections!

The Zodiac

The ox is second of all the zodiac animals. According to the Chinese myth, the Jade Emperor called a race of animals on his birthday to create the Chinese zodiac. The order would be decided by the order in which the animals arrive at his party. The ox was in the lead, but the rat tricked the ox into giving them a ride. Just as they arrived at the finish line, the rat jumped down and landed ahead of the ox to clinch first place.

The zodiac plays an essential role in Asian cultures, not only to represent years, but it is also believed to influence an individual’s personalities, careers, compatibilities, and more! Interpretations vary across Asian cultures but common characteristics of someone born in the Year of the Ox is valued for their honest nature, diligence, dependability, and strength. 

The “ox,” a bovid animal 

It is no surprise that the ox is a symbol of strength within the zodiac, as the ox and its close relatives have been domesticated by humans as work, or draft animals, for hundreds of years.  The term “ox” is commonly used to refer to animals in the Bovidae family, which consists of 143 species that are still alive today, like domesticated cows (Bos taurus), yaks (Bos grunniens), bantengs (Bos javanicus), and the American bison (Bison bison), which is also referred to as a buffalo. Some species are non-domesticated like the Arctic Musk Ox (Ovibos moschatus) found in one of our dioramas and the herd of American bison that live at Hart Park, both of which are pictured below.  

There are about 300 extinct species of Bovidae, a few of which have been found at the La Brea Tar Pits.  Pictured below is a skull and fragments from the ancient bison (Bison antiquus), which is a close relative of the Arctic Musk Ox which lives today.  

We hope you enjoy this tour through the Bovidae family collection of objects/specimens and wish you a Happy Lunar New Year! 

1. Musk ox skull

Musk Ox Skull, Extinct
This extinct musk-ox skull lived 780,000–11,000 years ago and was one of at least four such species found in North America during the Pleistocene; only one still lives today. Bulls charge at each other from distances of 50 yards (46 meters), leading with the tops, or bosses, of their horns—a pointed “headgear” weapon.

2. Woman with Ox Figurine, MADAGASCAR

Woman with Ox Figurine
This carving from Madagascar, circa 1900, provides several indications that this woman is well-off in life: her hands rest on her stomach signaling her growing family, she holds a vessel or basket implying available sustenance, and an ox with all the value in labor and dependability it provides, stands by her side.


La Brea Bison Skull
The ancient bison (Bison antiquus) was determined to be a migratory herding species based on the developmental ages of specimens found at La Brea.  Most individual specimens that have a certain developmental age determined are approximately 2-4 months old, 1 year, and 2-4 months old, or mature adults.  This shows that the bison were migrating through the Los Angeles area at approximately the same 2-month interval every year through successive generations.  

4. William S. Hart film, The Tiger Man

The Tiger Man, still photo from William S. Hart film
This still photo is from the 1918 American Western silent film, The Tiger Man, directed and starring William S. Hart.  The film is a morality tale about survival in the old West, and in this photo, Hart's co-star Jane Novak, leads a team of oxen using a wooden ox yoke.   A yoke is a wooden beam used to pair together oxen to enable them to pull on a load and distributes the load across the neck, shoulders, and chest of the ox. 


Korean Oxen Shoes
Oxen were fundamental to farming culture in Korea, and pictured here are ox shoes from 1928, with pointed nails made specifically for them to travel on ice.  In some Korean communities of the early 1900s, oxen were regarded as members of the family and often lived under the same roof.

6. CARRETA or Ox Cart

Ox Cart or Carreta
Carretas, or two-wheeled ox carts, brought early travelers and their belongings from modern-day Mexico to Los Angeles.  Oxen were preferred to horses not only because they could haul more weight over long distances, but also because they were not fussy eaters.  Oxen were willing to eat scrub brush or whatever type of vegetation they found along the trail.  

7. American Bison, William S. Hart Park 

American Bison from the Hart Museum
In 1962 Hart Park gained one of its most notable attractions: a herd of American bison (Bison bison), close relatives of the ox, and part of the Bovidae family. Originally owned by Walt Disney, Los Angeles County took possession of 8 total bison and set aside 22 acres of William S. Hart Park to be their permanent home. Today 10 of the 12 total bison in Hart Park are descendants of the original herd. Though this addition to the Park was made long after his death, William S. Hart’s property was a well-suited choice for the herd’s permanent home. Bison are an iconic symbol of the West, and with William S. Hart being an iconic western star, having a bison herd living on the grounds could not be more perfect.

8. Ancient Bison Fossil Skeleton, La brea Tar Pits

Bison fossil skeleton from the La Brea Tar Pits
Ancient bison (Bison antiquus) is the most common large mammal herbivore species found in La Brea fossil deposits.  This species is closely related to the modern American bison (Bison bison) species but the Ancient bison was on average slightly larger.  We also find a small number of Long-horned bison (Bison latifrons) in La Brea fossil deposits, these individuals were much larger and were expected to be solitary or live in small social/family units instead of vast herds like Ancient bison and American bison.  Long-horned bison also went extinct before the end Pleistocene extinction event.

9. Early Airplane and Ox Cart

Early Airplane and Ox Cart
In this short history of transportation from 1907, the handwritten title on the negative reads, "Going some from the ox cart to the aeroplane."

10. Taxidermy Cow, natural history museum

Becoming Los Angeles Taxidermy Cow
This Corriente cow (Bos taurus), exhibited in the Becoming Los Angeles exhibition, is a Criollo breed of cattle brought to Los Angeles by the Spanish.  Their lean, smaller body structure was bred by Spanish settlers during the Rancho period and their hide, horns, and tallow were part of extensive California hide trade.

11. Musk Ox Diorama, natural history museum

Muskox Diorama
This Musk Ox (Ovibos moschatus) diorama first opened in 1976 and features life on the frozen tundra of the Arctic. Their long shaggy hair is well adapted to suit the frigid climate. These herds of two to three dozen animals often protect themselves from predators by forming a circle around their young, with their horns facing outward towards their foes. Historically, this species was in decline due to overhunting. However, following placement of regulations, the population has recovered.

12. Early 1900s Hay Drawn by Oxen

Load of Hay Drawn by Oxen
This photo, circa 1895-1912, shows two oxen yoked to a hay wagon and being led by two men.  The yoke was typically fitted for the oven to ensure it worked properly without injuring the animals.  Placing the oxen closer together helped them work as a unit for heavy work. 

13. William S. Hart film, Wagon Tracks

Wagon Tracks, Still image from William S. Hart film
This still image is from the film Wagon Tracks, a silent film from 1919 which starred William S. Hart.  When it was released, the Los Angeles Times hailed it as “the Greatest Desert Epic.”  Hart (Buckskin Hamilton) is seated on his horse in the foreground, and wagons are being drawn by oxen and horses. 

14.  YAK HAIR gorilla costume

Publicity stills from Gorilla at Large Film and actor wearing suit
Yak hair has been imported from Mongolia and other Asian regions as early as the 18th century for use in wigs.  The long hair from the backs and underbellies of yaks can be treated like human hair; you can wash it, use a hair dryer on it, and even curl it.  Its durability, coarse texture and color variations also make it a favored material for creature costumes.  The original Chewbacca costume in Star Wars incorporated yak hair, as does NHM’s own gorilla costume, which appeared in numerous films and television shows from the 1950s through the 1970s. Pictured here is the poster from Gorilla at Large, a 1954 horror film featuring NHM's gorilla costume and a publicity still with our suits appearance on the American game show Truth or Consequences from the 1950s. 

15. Juvenile ancient Bison Skull Fragment, la brea tar pits

Juvenile Bison Skull Fragment
This fossil is a skull fragment of a juvenile Ancient bison (Bison antiquus) unearthed at the La Brea Tar Pits and is dated to be about 32,000 years old.   The fossil, still covered in sticky tar or asphalt, helps us understand the arrival of the bison genus into North America and the end Pleistocene extinction event which ended in the loss of bison species except the modern American bison (Bison bison).

16. Navajo (Diné) Blanket 

Navajo Blanket with Ox Pattern
Before Europeans arrived, the Navajo (Diné) lived by hunting, gathering, and trading with other tribes across vast trading networks. As Europeans and other tribes encroached on their hunting grounds, they moved into the Southwest and learned farming techniques from the Puebloan peoples. Eventually, the Navajo (Diné) acquired sheep and horses from the colonial Spanish and took to raising livestock with great pride, particularly sheep. The wool from the sheep provided the raw material to become famously great weavers of rugs and blankets. In time, only the wealthier families were able to keep cattle, which are members of the Bovidae family, so they became a status symbol.  

17. Ox Horn Cup, california

Ox Horn Cup with carved pattern
Early Angelenos used oxen for more than transportation or as draft animals to work in the fields. This cup was made from an ox horn and carved with a sharpened nail by an indigenous person at the San Gabriel Mission.

18. Ox Shoes, California 

Ox Shoes California
Oxen wear shoes to prevent their hooves from wearing down on rough ground such as roads.  Because they have two “toes” on each foot, they require a pair of metal plates, or shoes, per foot.  Despite their large size, oxen have thinner, more flexible leather walls around their hooves than horses do.  Their shoes require more and shorter nails than horseshoes. This pair was a gift from the Coronel family, and most likely used in Southern California sometime in the mid to late 1800s.  

19. shoshone Painted Hide  

Painted hide with multiple buffalo
This hide was painted by Eastern Shoshone leader Chief Washakie in 1898.  As his painted note in the upper left corner states, the hide depicts a “Buffalo hunt in his life.”  Buffalo, or American bison (Bison bison), played a significant role in Eastern Shoshone culture and prior to the extreme depopulation of bison in the late 1800s, bison meat accounted for up to 50 percent of their diet. The importance of buffalo/bison in their lives led most Plains Indians to view them as sacred, requiring the performance of ceremonial ritual before a hunt to show respect. Participating in such a hunt would certainly be a memorable event worthy of depicting many years later.  

20. Buffalo Storyteller Figurine, new Mexico 

Ox Figurine Anthropology
This Buffalo Storyteller figurine was made by Navajo (Diné) artist, Marvin Jim, circa 2017.  “Storyteller” figurines, commonly associated with Pueblo peoples of New Mexico, are usually portrayed with a central person surrounded by children who are gathered to hear the person’s story. The artist replaced the people with buffalo to reference the “Home of the Buffalo People” story described as a metaphor for when overhunting of the buffalo nearly led to the extinction of Plains tribes who relied on buffalo for survival. This tale is told to help the Navajo (Diné) understand the cause and effect of reckless actions.

21. BUFFALO Hide Sandals, uganda 

Buffalo Hide Sandals
These Buffalo hide sandals were collected in Uganda in 1919.  According to their documentation, the use of these thick buffalo hide sandals was said to be “only allowed to the King and the Chiefs and Nobles.” These were collected during an expedition to Africa funded by the Smithsonian and the Universal Film Manufacturing company (Universal Films). In true Hollywood fashion, motion picture cameramen joined a group of scientists and reporters on an expedition considered “the largest in scientific scope since the famous Stanley expedition that went in search of Livingstone half a century ago.” The collector of these sandals, George Scott, was the chief photographer working under director, William Stowell.