NEWS NOTES ON SUSTAINABLE WATER RESOURCESLa Brea Tar Pits in the heart of L.A., La Brea Tar Pits are one of the world...


La Brea Tar Pits

Located in the heart of L.A., La Brea Tar Pits are one of the world’s most famous fossil localities, where more than 100 excavations have been made! It’s a fascinating piece of land.

Over time, this area has been ancient forest and savannah, ranch land and oilfield, Mexican land grant, and Los Angeles County Park. It provided a natural source of asphalt for thousands of years of human use, it has fascinated scientists and visitors, and it’s a community spot for walks, picnics, exercise boot camps, and playtime.

Visitors can also watch the processes of paleontology unfold before their eyes. Staff and volunteers dig fossils out from asphalt at outdoor dig sites. Inside the museum, located at the center of the site, our teams work on these discoveries in the see-through Fossil Lab. The Tar Pits provide an incredibly complete record of the different plants and animals that have lived in the L.A. Basin between 50,000 years ago and today. We research and exhibit huge, extinct mammals such as saber-toothed cats, dire wolves, and mammoths, as well as “microfossils”—the tiny remains of plants and animals that can give us clues about past and present climate change.

Peak Excavations

Between 1905 and 1915, excavation at Rancho La Brea was at its peak. Foreign and domestic institutions became interested in acquiring fossils from the area and sent individuals or crews to collect and visiting amateurs were known to take away many souvenirs. Beginning in 1907, J. Z. Gilbert, zoology teacher at Los Angeles High School, periodically brought a work force of students to exhume specimens. Gilbert was the first to create local interest and monetary support through the Southern California Academy of Sciences and the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors and directed the excavation of a large "Academy Pit" in 1910. This served as the nucleus of the fossil vertebrate collections at the (then) fledgling Los Angeles Museum of History, Science and Art (now the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County). Merriam finally secured funds in 1912 for the first large-scale excavations and the University of California excavations yielded thousands of specimens. G. Allan Hancock feared that the collections would be scattered and taken from the community, so in 1913 he gave Los Angeles County the exclusive right to excavate for a two-year period.

The largest and best documented collections at that time were made by the Los Angeles Museum between 1913 and 1915. During this period, 96 sites were excavated yielding well over 750,000 specimens of plants and animals. After Hancock Park was established in 1924, little in the way of formal excavation was accomplished for the next 45 years. Intermittent small-scale excavations between 1929 and 1931 stopped when museum field parties were sent to work in New Mexico. In 1945, systematic coring was undertaken to locate more fossiliferous sites within the park.

During the mid twentieth century excavation and data gathering techniques improved, as did our ability to extract knowledge from data and specimens neither noted nor collected by the early excavators. Early collectors concentrated their efforts on the remains of the larger, more spectacular plants and animals and rarely noticed or collected those of smaller organisms and important information pertaining to geology and specimen orientation was not often recorded. To help rectify such collecting biases, the Rancho La Brea Project began on June 13, 1969 by resuming excavation of a major deposit of fossils in Pit 91 that had been discovered 1915. Newly developed techniques, in concurrence with established paleontological and archaeological methods, were employed to intensely sample and carefully record biological and geological data in the resumed excavation.


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