I am fossil obsessed. Getting a glimpse into life, thousands, to tens of thousands, to tens of millions of years ago is absolutely amazing to me. Growing up, every summer, my folks would pack up the ol’ Winnebago and we’d head out to find clues, learn new things and explore our beautiful earth. Being from the Midwest, we were never far from dinosaur bones and fossils galore. Armed with my rock and dirt collection, I was ready to “paleontologist”.
Thinking of our trips to the Land of Dinosaurs (South Dakota), the Painted Desert (Arizona) and the Field Museum (Illinois), it’s no surprise that I’m a fulltime RVer! I will always and forever cherish the memories from those childhood adventures. I still remember, the first time I saw Sue at the Field Museum. My Mom had to remind me to breath. Sue truly is breathtaking. Speaking of dinos, I’d be remiss not to mention Ashfall Fossils Beds. I dare you to tell me that there’s nothing to do in Nebraska. Twelve million years of history preserved in ash! Nothing to do. Pft.
Imagine my inner “paleontologist” excitement when I moved to LA and discovered the La Brea Tar Pits. Now over six years later, it’s still one of my regular stomping grounds. For over 100 years, scientists have been digging up fossils from the pits. For the last 50,000 years, everything from mammoths to tiny insects have been getting stuck there. It’s amazing to see these fossils paint a picture of what Los Angeles looked like during the Ice Age.
To date, the oldest fossils found in the pits are that of a Dire Wolf and Saber Tooth Cat from Pit 91 which are about 44,000 years old and a coyote in Pit A which is about 46,800 years old. Over one million bones have been found repping over 231 animal species and 159 plant species. 234 invertebrates have yet to be identified and they’re still discovering more! By the time Project 23 is complete, those numbers will have doubled.
“What is Project 23?” In June of 2006, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art began work on a new underground parking garage. During the course of construction, 16 new fossil deposits were discovered, including the semi-articulated, largely complete skeleton of an adult mammoth. Zed is the nickname given to this Columbian mammoth. He is one of the biggest fossil finds from Project 23. Zed’s size and the width of his teeth tell us he was a male, and wear patterns on his teeth suggest that he was between 48 and 50 years old when he died. His skeleton is approximately 80% complete!
Rather than halting construction, paleontologists worked with a team that was protecting the fossil resources by building large wooden “tree” boxes around each deposit. Some of the larger deposits were split into more than one box, eventually resulting in the 23 fossil boxes that "Project 23" is named for. In 2008, the boxes were moved by crane and truck to their present location immediately north of the Pit 91 complex, and excavation began.
The name La Brea Tar Pits is a little redundant. It actually translates to “The Tar Pits Tar Pits”. The Tar Pits and Handcock Park sit within what was once the Mexican Land Grant of Rancho La Brea. What if I told you, to be accurate that the tar pits should be called the “Asphalt Pits? Would you believe me? If you said, “YES!” You’re correct. Tar pits form when crude oil seeps to the surface through fissures in the earth’s crust. As the oil evaporates, it leaves behind a heavy tar. This specific natural asphalt has been bubbling from below since the Ice Age and is the only active, urban Ice Age excavation site.
For the conspiracy theorists out there, one human skeleton has been found in the pits. She is approximately 9,000 years old and was dubbed the “La Brea Woman”. Initially, she was thought to be LA’s first homicide. Studies later showed that she had been ceremonially reburied in the asphalt with her favorite dog, when he passed. Seems a little “tied up in a bow” to me. I think we need a “Law & Order” crossover event.
I’ve barely scrapped the surface (Paleontologist humor - Get it - Barely scraped the surface) on the fascinating things that can be found at the La Brea Tar Pits. The park is free, open to the public and dog friendly. There is a fee for the museum. Museum hours are 9am – 5pm. Service Dogs Only. They have a parking lot, I usually park in at the Screen Actors Guild garage across the street. Parking will run you about $15 just about anywhere in the area.