More from the La Brea Tar Pits…a treasure-trove of old bones

The La Brea Tar Pits are tremendously interesting to anyone who lingers long enough to consider what it’s like to literally stand at the edge of an open science lesson situated in the middle of one of the most densely populated cities on the planet. The Pits provide answers to those studying prehistory while also, like all effective research, opening whole new lines of questions yet to be studied and answered.

One of the aspects of the Pits that most fascinates me today is the location. This large body of goop is situated on Wilshire Boulevard on a stretch called The Miracle Mile, namedĀ for its significant number of affluent business addresses.

In the early 1920’s this then unpaved stretch of road extended through dairy farms and bean fields.

But real estate developer A. W. Ross understood how the rise of the personal automobile was going to change Los Angeles and he envisioned a retail district that was at the time unprecedented.

Today the stretch is also known as Museum Row, home to many prominent and elite museums, including the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which also happens to be right next door to the Tar Pits.

Nestled in with museums and restaurants, the bubbling methane exists as a reminder that Los AngelesĀ is built on one of the world’s deep pocket oil provinces–approximately 50% greater than the East Texas field and almost as much as Prudhoe Bay, Alaska.

The existence of so much oil, methane build-up and other implications for a healthy environment are of serious importance to me. The more I read and study, however, the more questions I have. I’ve been on a reading frenzy, but I can only go so fast.

So for now, I’ll stick to what I know.

The oldest organisms found in the tar Pits is a wood fragment that dates from 40,000 years ago. And the most common large mammal found are dire wolves. The ancient predator was about the size of a modern-day wolf.

But the second more common fossil found is the Smilodon californicus. This sabre-toothed cat is also the California state fossil. Hundreds of thousands of its bones have been found, representing thousands of the big cats.

Mammoths, mastodons and short-faced bear–it was still more than 11 feet tall–two species of bison, one with seven-foot horns– and surprisingly, camels that stood taller than modern dromedaries, have all been found in the tar pits.

At least 59 species of mammal and over 135 species of bird have been found. Including vertebrates, plants, mollusks and insects, over 660 species of prehistoric organisms have been identified.

When I was a child I believed the Tar Pits were also the source for dinosaur bones. A visit to the site was usually accompanied by a trip to the Natural History Museum with the large dinosaur bone exhibits, and I lumped all prehistoric animals into the same gooey tar mess. But there were no dinosaurs bones at the La Brea Tar Pits.

In fact, dinosaurs were long extinct before the tar pits occurred.

But there were human remains. In 1914 excavators uncovered a woman’s skull and partial skeleton, dating her death at about 9,000 years ago. Her skull was fractured suggesting a blow to the head.

The Chumash people who populated the land that became Southern California used the oil and tar to help pitch their boats, but the existence of the fossilized animal remains wasn’t discovered until 1901 when W.W. Orcutt, called the “Dean of Petroleum Geologists” came from Minnesota to Los Angeles as the manager of the Geological, Land and Engineering Departments of the Union Oil Company.

Orcutt discovered fossilized prehistoric animal bones preserved in pools of asphalt on the Hancock Ranch. Paleontologists named the La Brea coyote, Canis Orcutti, in Orcutt’s honor.

The La Brea Tar Pits and accompanying George Page Museum is a worthwhile “field trip” for anyone visiting California.

It’s impossible for me to stare at the pits and not consider what is bubbling underneath our shaky, earthquake prone crust. Because California is sitting on a massive amount of shale oil, controversies and debate are ever-present as to whether we will be the next oil boom state.

California has a legal mandate that the state receive 33% of its electricity from renewable sources, such as wind and solar energy, by the year 2020. That’s just seven more years.

But in the complicated mechanisms that generate wind and solar energy, fossil fuels will still be required to fuel turbines that will be “ready” during the intermittent times renewable energy sources are not fully capable of keeping pace with energy requirements.

In other words, it’s very complicated.

I’m immersed in reading on the subject, so I can just about assure you we’re not done yet.

It’s a fascinating and deeply troubling question as to how California will face future energy needs. On the whole I don’t see many moves to be more resourceful or conservation-minded. But that’s another story for another time.

In fact, that’s one of my particularly favorite rants, and if I can frame the topic in a way to be more pleasantly conveyed, I may come back to that.

46 thoughts on “More from the La Brea Tar Pits…a treasure-trove of old bones

    • We do have a lot of oil drilling in California, BD, and I think many of the concerns at this point are environmental, which is a valid concern I believe. It seems to me that the state isn’t entirely focused. Of course, all things become more political than oriented to true problem solving, so I do wonder how wind and solar farms can be fully addressed in the same sentence with possible fracking. I’ve really been studying and think I may understand about 25% of it! I’m working to understand 50%. LOL!

      • The word fracking frightens me.. as they are suggesting just that in an area of South Africa that is so unique world wide.. the Karoo… they say the environmental mess is not worth it.. and luckily the greenies are fighting it…

      • You’re facing possible tracking, too! It’s a global problem. I agree with you about the environmental activists. They so often get demonized, but can you even imagine what would happen if no one was advocating for conservation? It makes for wonderful debates…when you can get a group of people in discussion and somehow keep politics out of it. LOL!

    • Oh yes, Marie. Central California is oil-rich in ways that are being considered, and it is going to be interesting to see what happens. I’ve been glued to articles in the Los Angeles Times covering this in detail. Otherwise, I don’t think I’d know a thing about it.

    • I think we’ll have to see how California does with the solar energy fields. There is a lot of infrastructure already being in place. We do have wind farms now, but I think the output is small in comparison to energy usage. The best part is that most Californians aren’t even aware that this is going to happen, and there will indeed be monetary repercussions. These changes, although necessary, I believe, are not going to come without cost. Imagine what would happen if we actually considered using less. Oh no!! :-)

  1. Interesting how misconceptions form … many times due to not having enough information … I say this because of the association of the tar pits with dinosaurs. Thanks for shedding light on the matter! Meanwhile, I had no idea that the tar pits were so urban!

    • The urban positioning of the tar pits is indeed really fascinating to me, too. When I was very young they didn’t even keep the area fenced, or if it was, it was small and not a barricade. The funniest picture I couldn’t quite adequately get on the day I was there was an entire line of high-end food trucks all lined up on the street opposite the tar pits and all the bankers, attorneys, business men and women lined up at the food trucks, which also look so out of place, and then here’s this big open pit full of fossils. The whole scene is just so incongruous I am completely amused by it! I’ve had fun sharing about the pits. I’m hoping to get some photos of the Beverly Hills oil wells. Talk about incongruous! :-) Thanks for your interest, Frank. I appreciate you sharing.

  2. Energy needs and water are fascinating and frustrating for us all. Thank you for sharing and looking forward to more news. Hopefully with a little conscious and green efforts everyone can make a difference.

    • I think you and I share a very similar concern about the environmental drain on California. I do think we need to wake up and make even small changes. I think back over the course of my lifetime and remember the years when I didn’t give one thought to waste. But once we become aware the changes feel more urgent. I’m currently absorbed in reading about our natural resources and what we’re either doing to conserve or exploit. I think I’m making up for lost time! I have to admit I haven’t always thought this way! Thank you for stopping by and I always appreciate your thoughts.

    • Your thoughts run very close to mine, Nancy. I often think we are so sure we’re “it” and MORE…and one day, people will be excavating and looking at our very primitive lives…maybe our primitive brains! LOL! I would like to stay out of the tar, however. :-)

    • That’s what I find so intriguing, too, Hansi. The location of the Tar Pits. I often wonder if out-of-state tourists who come to the museums have any idea what that strange construction site is all about! :-)

  3. Fascinating, Debra, with more questions than answers, more possibilities than not, I would think. I often think of CA as being innovative when it comes to the environment (remember, I live in Illinois). When we were still sitting in a cloud of smog, CA was doing something about it. At any rate, it is, as you say, complicated. I’m interested in what more you learn.

    • Your thoughts about California environmentalism is interesting, Penny. I am one who doesn’t openly complain about the added taxes that are slapped all over every move we make here relative to environmental concerns. When I was a child we had smog alerts that kept us indoors, and I can still remember how our chests hurt when we breathed. I’m sure we have plenty of air pollution, but it’s nothing like it was! I would just LOVE to say we don’t need oil drilling here in our state. And I support organizations that invest in attempting to keep environmental concerns in the forefront of all debate, but realistically, we are a huge state dependent on the stuff–at least at this point, and I never hear a word about people learning to be more conservative. Gasoline was almost $5.00 a gallon recently and most people just went about their business. So there are just so many twists and turns to the story and although I find it all so interesting, when the larger conversation turns strictly political, I try to get out of the room! LOL!

  4. Museum Row existing alongside the Tar Pits. There’s an unintended synergy at work here. I tell you, Debra. I’ve only been to LA once, for business, and did very little touring. I’ll be back and the Tar Pits are on my “Must See” list. I’m not really one to care if my shoes fit into John Wayne’s prints. I do, however, want to see Smilodon fossils. Keep these posts coming! … um … Please.

    • I’m so glad you’re enjoying the mini-tour of the Tar Pits, John. I wish there were a bit more to see! Unfortunately, I took a dozen photos and they all look alike. LOL! But I’m just as fascinated as could be with everything that even comes close to touching upon what it means to have this site telling us about prehistory. I think that Los Angeles is so very undervalued because we haven’t done a good job of elevating the discussion above the Kardashian, Hilton, Lohan line…and it’s true that the attention span out here is not very long! But there is so much incredible beauty and truly fascinating history. When you come, not IF you come, you be sure to let me know…I’ll point you in some very good directions! :-)

  5. To me, California is one of our most interesting states. Not to shortchange any other, but it’s fascinating to visit LA or San Francisco, drive an hour, and be in the middle of nowhere. That section of the San Joaquin Valley between Yosemite and SF is so amazing to drive through. And, even in LA, I went on one of the most rugged hikes I’ve done……in a dress…….because I did not expect rugged hiking when I went for a walk.

    I love these pictures. The Tar Pits were such a treat for me when we visited in October 2011. The fancy restaurant at the LACMA was very good, BTW.

    • I know the restaurant you refer to, and it’s gone! They’ve added some other eating options and they’re nice, but I liked the one we’re talking about and yet I can’t remember its name! Ha! I think one thing that distinguishes California from other states is the size. That factor does offer a lot of variety. It is a truly beautiful state with a lot of really outstanding natural resources. Unfortunately a lot of people only know of it, and some of what they know, although true, is hardly the whole picture. I feel like I’ve become a California PR writer! I’m glad you like it enough to come back again. I can’t imagine hiking in a dress. That is really funny, Andra! Do you have pictures?

    • I’ so glad you enjoyed the photos of the area around the the Tar Pits. It’s a very nice part of Los Angeles. One of these days I’m going to spend some time not doing anything ore than taking photos. I’m always going somewhere and taking photos hurriedly.:-)

  6. As always, so interesting, Debra, with a lot of information well-conveyed. I’m amazed you find time to do so much research and work too. Just think what you’ll achieve once you retire. ;-) Energy conservation is a big interest of mine, so I look forward to your thoughts on it in a future post.

  7. Debra, I am loving your explorations of California history. I learned so much today about the tar pits that I didn’t know. I also had no idea that Los Angeles was atop such a large oil field. Thanks so much for writing such an informative and insightful post! Karen

    • I’m so glad you stopped by to see the tar pits, Karen! I don’t actually think most Angelenos know they’re sitting on all this oil! It’s all quite interesting to me! Thank you of stopping by. :-)

  8. What a cool place to visit, Debra! I can see why you’re fascinated by this one. I love history as well and the fossils would have been such an amazing discovery. We have the Drumheller Dinosaur park, so we have a few of those guys here:) The fossil fuel debate is indeed a complicated one and one that is driven by our economy here. Until those renewable resources become huge economic drivers.. the oil and gas industry isn’t going anywhere for a very long time I’m afraid.

    • The Tar Pits are really interesting, Barbara. I agree with you that the fossil fuel debate is going to continue for a long time to come. The economy is not a small dilemma. As strong as my opinions are about slowing down any oil drilling that compromises the surrounding ecology, I am still glad that I am not in charge of the decision making. There are so many sides to the dilemma and I certainly can’t understand them all. But it’s an interesting discussion! Thanks so much for adding to it, Barbara. :-)

  9. Two thoughts today. I am so impressed with how you are deeply researching an area that you grew up in and are so freely sharing your knowledge and experiences. The second thought is that through your wonderful and informative blog I am now seeing LA as being much more than the whole movie/Hollywood/Rodeo Drive vibe. It makes me think I need to further research the area I live in. One of my plans is to visit a lot of the smaller towns that are day trips, take my camera and learn about what each unique location has to offer. That will happen when I have more time on my hands. Thanks again and keep up the great work! ~Thea

    • Thank you so much for the compliment, Thea, regarding learning more about Southern California than you’d previously known. It is a wonderfully diverse and historically rich region that is often synthesized down to the Hollywood glitz and glamor…although, I will be near Rodeo Drive very soon and will just have to take pictures. LOL! But I encourage you to really dig a little deeper into your own region, close to home and beyond as far as you can go in day trips! It’s amazing what you’ll find out. I started with a few simple questions and I have opened up so many new streams of interest I just wish I had more time. Work definitely cuts into my creativity! Ha! But thank you! I appreciate your kind words.

  10. Pingback: The McKittrick Tar Pits and the Monterey Shale Formation. It can make your head hurt. | breathelighter

  11. A fascinating read Debra – thanks for sharing your hard won knowledge. The UK has quite a lot of shale oil / gas deposits but an experimental fracking operation was halted following earth tremors in the Blackpool area in 2011. Even so, it looks like exploration and mining of that material are back on the agenda with the chancellor announcing tax breaks for shale exploration.

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  14. I’ve lived in L.A. just over a decade and been to LACMA at least half a dozen times but still haven’t gone next door to the “Tar Pits”. Thanks to you and your well researched historical background to the area I’m inspired to go there now…. Are you interested in meeting me there?

    • Absolutely! This would be such a nice place to experience together. I think my biggest issue is timing right now…but we can work that out. I think it might need to be August, but let me get out my calendar…and let’s DO it! :-)

      • I understand how quickly a summer can fill up. Do email me and let me know when you’re free and hopefully we can find a time.
        Mr F, doggie and I walked for miles without shoes on the beach in Malibu today (4th July). The tide was coming in and I got quite wet. So liberating :D

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