Did you realize you can take a trip back in time to the Ice Age in the heart of one of America’s largest modern cities? It’s true! What are we talking about? The La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles, California, of course!
The urban heart of Los Angeles is the site of a fascinating scientific treasure. Within Hancock Park lie the La Brea Tar Pits. The tar pits are areas where tar — brea in Spanish — has seeped up from under the ground for 40,000 years or more.
The tar in the pits consists of heavy oil called asphaltum. Oil fields underlie much of the ground in the area, and oil seeps to the surface and collects in pools at several different areas.
Big pools of oil don’t sound all that exciting. So what’s so special about the La Brea Tar Pits? It’s actually what can be found within the tar pits that has amazed scientists for many years.
The tar in the pits gets very thick. Sometimes it doesn’t even look like tar, because it gets covered with dust, leaves and water. Over the years, many animals have been fooled into thinking they’re on solid ground when, in reality, they end up getting stuck in tar.
Over hundreds and thousands of years, animals trapped in the tar have died and sunk into the tar. The tar does a fabulous job of preserving the bones of these animals. The tar also preserves all sorts of other fossils, including plants, insects and seeds.
The tar pits were initially used as a source of asphalt by early settlers in the area. Eventually, bones were found and scientists began to search the area for fossilized evidence of the area’s history.
Since the early 1900s, scientists have excavated over 100 pits to search for the bones of large mammals that lived long, long ago. The oldest fossils found have been dated to about 38,000 years ago.
So what animals roamed the Los Angeles area tens of thousands of years ago? Several different species have become associated with the La Brea Tar Pits because of fossilized remains found at the site, including saber-toothed cats, mammoths, wolves, bears, ground sloths, bison and horses.
The fossils that have been found in the tar pits can be seen at the George C. Page Museum in Hancock Park. Because of the valuable fossils recovered so far, the La Brea Tar Pits were named a registered National Natural Landmark.