La Brea Tar Pits

March 3, 2011 – I assume it happened just like the old Reese's Peanut Butter Cups commercials. You got mammals in my tar pit. You got tar pit in my mammals. Double-take. And then everybody realizes what a cool museum this is going to make.

That resulting cool museum is the George C. Page Museum, located in downtown Los Angeles, CA, which is dedicated to and located on the site of those naturally occurring asphalt seeps that we call tar pits. However I try to phrase it, there’s really just no pleasant euphemism for those sucking pools of black goo.

I know, I know. You're not in L.A. for science museums. You're there because people pretending to be other people have helped multi-million-dollar corporations create a fantasyland of stories that made all our lives a bit less bland and a lot less productive. However, when you're finished being let down by the disgustingness that is downtown L.A., you can refresh yourself by switching to the disgustingness that is the La Brea Tar Pits.

Discovered by Spanish explorers in the 1700s, these billabongs of bubbling black broth got nothing more than a “yuck” from our forefathers until 1901 when the first bones of ancient, extinct animals were found therein. By that time, the area had become known as Rancho La Brea. Eventually, much like the dark, oily sludge of the tar pits themselves, the Hollywood area of modern L.A. oozed up into existence around it.

The George C. Page Museum, located at 5801 Wilshire Blvd. and named for the rich guy who funded it, was built in 1977 and showcases the amazing wealth of fossilized animal bones that were dredged from the pitchy depths of the pits. In fact, they've pulled millions of fossils from hundreds of species out of the dark sloughs, including those of mammals, birds, insects, reptiles, and plants. Like a rescue party tens of thousands of years too late, the La Brea paleontologists have discovered such animals as saber-toothed cats, woolly mammoths and mastodons, large birds of prey, giant ground sloths, bison, horses, dire wolves, and once even a 9,000-year-old human murder victim.

Now, even though we're talking ancient bones and paleontology, this isn't a story about dinosaurs. That’s because these goopy pools of oil byproduct squelched groundside in large amounts somewhere around 40,000 years ago, meaning that dinosaurs had long gone the way of the dinosaurs by the time this sludge started eating things.

The museum itself is located in an impressive-looking building fronted by a statue of fighting saber-teeth and a building-wide relief of the relevant animals in their ice-age southern L.A. climate. However, before being impressed by the architecture, you’re going to want to be appalled by the asphalt.

There are apparently about a hundred pits scattered throughout the surrounding 23-acre area known these days as Hancock Park. However, only one of those black uglies has traditionally been an active dig site, and work on that one has been suspended for the past decade and a half due to the discovery of a fossil trove during the construction of a nearby underground parking lot.

Most of those tar deposits are hidden underground, with only a sticky patch of grass or two denoting their presence. However there’s a nice, open pond-sized specimen right in front of the museum. It’s surrounded by a chain-link fence and features life-sized statues of dying and/or grieving mammoths within. Death-sized, actually, I guess.

It looks like a larger version of that thing that killed Tasha Yar, and you can see bubbles of methane slowly breaking the thick surface or watch squirrels being drowned and digested. That’s right. The place is still making investments that will pay off for future paleontologists. The place also smells just like the phrase "tar pits" sounds, but, honestly, the smell isn't what I remember. It was the cloying heat and general grittiness of the air that marked my entire early-May stay in L.A.

Inside, the museum is small, but fascinating, especially since there are no towering dinosaur skeletons to dominate the place and steal all the attention from the bones of the unique mammal and bird specimens on display. In addition, the bones are all stained a telltale shade of brown from millennia of miring in the muck.

Besides bones, bones, and bones, the museum also features a few animatronic animals to show you just what kind of heart-rending agony it could be for, say, a baby woolly mammoth to get attacked by a sabre-toothed cat and then both go down together into dismal depths of petroleum death. Actually, one of my favorite displays was less about science and more about aesthetics. Back-lit on a translucent orange panel was an entire wall of dire wolf skulls, an extinct species that is the most common mammal found in the tar pits. You live by the pack, you die by the pack, I guess.

The main feature of the museum, though, is the public-viewable laboratory itself, which is in a transparent bubble of windows in the middle of the museum. It allows visitors to smear their nose prints just inches from where museum staff carefully extract bits of ex-animate matter from solid hunks of dried, black tar. Yet another sucky-sounding job that science makes awesome.

Like most people who are people, I like natural history museums a lot, even though there’s a general sameness to many of them. You know, this way to the dinosaur bones, this way to the taxidermied fauna, this way to our rock collection. The La Brea Tar Pits museum, on the other hand, though somewhat humble, remains a unique repository of the natural history of the region.

Oh, and here are some relevant facts that should have been cleverly worked into the article instead of clumsily post-scripted here: “Brea” is Spanish for tar, the term “saber-toothed tiger” is a misnomer, and another word for naturally occurring asphalt is “bitumen.”

Also, even though I busted on L.A. a lot in this article, there’s still a part of me that likes the city. I think it’s the hole in my soul part.