December 08, 2013

A Walk Through the La Brea Tar Pits

Right next door to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, in the middle of downtown L.A., is a designated National Natural Landmark - the La Brea Tar Pits.  Originally part of the Mexican land grant Rancho La Brea, this amazing natural history site would make a great Surrealist destination as a bizarre, prehistoric setting juxtaposed smack in the center of the Miracle Mile!  I had heard about the Tar Pits but had never explored them until last week en route back to the parking lot after visiting LACMA.

The word "brea" in Spanish means tar, and it is pure asphaltum, or "brea" that seeped up from the Salt Lake Oil Field that lies under much of this Hancock Park district.  In very early times, the Chumash Indians used the tar as a glue and to seal their boats.  Later, the citizens of El Pueblo de Nuestra SeƱora de la Reina de Los Angeles used this tar as fuel and to waterproof their homes.  By the 1800s the area was being mined for asphalt but some clever geologists realized that there was probably oil in the ground and by the end of the 19th century the quarries had been replaced with oil derricks.

All of this became even more interesting when fossils began to be discovered in the tar and it became apparent that these pits were a treasure trove of specimens from the Pleistocene Era (40,000-11,000 years ago) to the end of the Ice Age.  It turned out that all sorts of animals, from massive mastodons to tiny beetles as well as all manner of plant life, had been trapped in the tar fields and preserved in oil.

Fast forward to today when the La Brea Tar Fields are both a glimpse into the ancient past and a very vibrant science project.  Visitors are invited to stroll in the park's verdant setting with its intermittent deposits of nasty looking tar deposits bubbling with methane gas!  All manner of leaves and dirt are stuck in the muck and there is not a chance of retrieving anything that might accidentally land there.  There is a Lake Pit where the quarries had been excavated but the oil and tar has now filled in the pit like a bubbling, dirty pond.  To make the point, there are life size models of Columbian Mammals as they might have looked while being sucked into the ooze thousands of years ago.  There is also the Pleistocene Garden planted with indigenous flora of the time - not a palm tree in sight!

Also fascinating is "Project 23" an ongoing dig with paleontologists and volunteers carefully excavating fossils seven days a week.  The "23" refers to the 23 special collecting boxes that were used to capture and transfer the fossil rich soil from the recent parking lot expansion next door at LACMA.  These cases were carefully transported to the Tar Pit site and are being meticulously unearthed, one by one, in a search for signs of plant and animal life.  The efforts have been rewarded with discoveries on an almost daily basis and the team is hoping to be able to assemble a complete Columbian mammoth skeleton from this source.

You might be wondering what happens to all the bones and fossils unearthed from the pits?  They are collected and either displayed or studied at the nearby Page Museum.  The Page boasts one of the largest collections of its kind with over 3 million Ice Age specimens, over a million of which are viewable by the public, and ranging from a the incisor of a sabre-tooth cat to a baby mouse tooth.

While the La Brea Tar Pits may fall a little afield of my usual milieu, they turned out to be a fascinating visit and a rare first hand look at pre-history in the making!

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