La Brea Tar Pits Park

By Bonnie & Bill Neely

In the heart of Los Angeles, we discovered this area has been inhabited for thousands of years before we humans got here! Right in the midst of the daily traffic of hundreds of vehicles and pedestrians, you will enjoy a most unusual place: The La Brea Tar Pits and Museum. We chose to spend most of our time in the park where, from reading the signs at each exhibit, we could learn so much about the natural history of this area.

In the late 1800’s there was a series of tar pits there, which were mined for the naturally sticky asphalt tar used to seal roofs and to make roads. As the tar was mined, some great discoveries were made! Today you can see small lakes of accumulated rainwater in the depressions where tar was removed. Some of these little lakes have a sheen and in places tar bubbles and smells awful. This is because there is still oil in the ground deep below the surface. And on the edges of the lakes, we could clearly see the irregular surface of the asphalt/tar.

In ancient times this was a large lake. Many species of indigenous animals came to drink, unaware that the ground below the water was dangerous. Their hoofs and feet sank into the soft muck and became irretrievably stuck! Unable to move from the goo, many animals became trapped and died. In this vast and lovely Park, a statue of a huge elephant first attracted our attention and there we found a small lake behind a fence. The sign indicted it was the first of these tar pits in which a fossil was discovered.  It was confirmed as a saber-toothed cat. By early 1900’s fossil digging began in earnest.

The ancient bones were not intact as one entire animal. From the jumble of ancient bones found in each Tar Pit, scientists learned that huge animals roamed this area. Bones included Columbian Mammoths, enormous Harlan’s Ground Sloths, Dire Wolves, Saber-toothed Cats, Coyotes, Mastodons, and more large mammals. There were also many smaller animals, and birds.

Serious digging in 1914 was at what was called Pit 9. Over 10,000 bones were retrieved, all mixed up. These were fossils of the saber-toothed cats, dire wolves, ground sloths, and included short-faced bears, camels, and horses! Workers dug down over 35 feet, finding the bones jumbled together. Bones of 27 individual mammoths revealed animals died in this pit over a period of many years.

Many of the larger animals that were stuck in the tar were attacked by smaller carnivores, which seemed to be able to escape the muck, tearing off a limb of the victim and taking it for a feast away from the watery danger. I shuddered to think of the pain and anguish absorbed into these pits.

Fossil digging did not end in the early 20th century but continues today. Many crates of fossils are numbered to indicate which Tar Pit yielded the evidence. Digging continues every day. From Pit 23 the yield has been taken to on-site labs for testing in 23 crates, including giant mammoth tusks and even toes of little mice! No treasure is too small or too large, and these help scientists know what it was like here during the Ice Age. Some of the research stations are under tents near the digs. A few of the little lakes are not enclosed, but we did not dare touch the area.

Inside the museum there are many scary, enormous fossil skeletons put together from discoveries made right in these Tar Pits. Kids of all ages love seeing these and wondering what life on earth was like when these monsters roamed. You can watch scientists in the lab who are working to clean and test newly found fossils, as the discoveries continue daily. You can even watch and perhaps help the official digs going on right in front of you. It is a fascinating place!

You can test your strength (not in tar but at a simulator) by trying to pull the demonstrator to see if you would be able to pull yourself out of the tar. (You’ll find it would be impossible, as these poor thirsty animals discovered!)

In addition to the Tar Pits, we enjoyed touring The Academy Museum of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences and Los Angeles County Museum of Modern Art. On Wilshire Boulevard these fascinating museums are clustered near enough to each other to park your car only one time for the day. There are also many other museums nearby.