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Courtesy of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County

10 Fascinating Facts About the La Brea Tar Pits

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Courtesy of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County

There's a gooey time capsule in the heart of Los Angeles, left over from an era when saber-toothed cats, dire wolves, camels, and giant sloths prowled southern California. At the site known today as the La Brea Tar Pits and Museum, natural asphalt has bubbled up from below the ground's surface since the last Ice Age. This murky sludge has trapped and made fossils out of thousands of creatures, as small as bees and as big as mammoths. Here are a few of the amazing discoveries made there.

1. MORE THAN 3.5 MILLION FOSSILS HAVE BEEN DISCOVERED.

The tar pits have yielded one of the biggest collections of Ice Age fossils in the world, and collectively, the statistics are stunning. More than 600 species have been found, from snakes and mollusks to sloths and mountain lions. Of the mammals found at La Brea, around 90 percent are carnivores. (Amazingly, the pits have yielded more 200,000 individual dire wolf specimens alone.) The common explanation is that when big herbivores like mammoths got stuck in the asphalt, they would have looked like an easy meal to predators—who would then become stuck in the tar themselves.

2. PALEONTOLOGISTS STILL DIG THERE 361 DAYS A YEAR.

paleontologists working on bones
Courtesy of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County

Why 361? The site is closed July 4, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's Day. The rest of the time, science is happening. The first excavations at the tar pits began in the early 20th century, and if you visit today, you're still likely to see scientists preserving bones or digging in the asphalt. Still, people often don't realize that it's a place for active scientific research, as the tar pits lie in the middle of Los Angeles, a city synonymous with the entertainment industry. Emily Lindsey, assistant curator at the La Brea Tar Pits and Museum, tells Mental Floss that this has led to some confusion on the part of visitors, who "think sometimes the excavators are actors, or part of an art exhibit, or robots."

3. THE ONLY DINOSAURS FOUND THERE ARE BIRDS.

After the paleontologists at La Brea have convinced you they aren't robots, they'll be quick to clear up another misconception: They don't dig up dinosaurs. (Although, technically, they do. "We have 163 species of birds," Lindsey says. Yes, birds are dinosaurs.) Most of the fossils at La Brea date from 11,000 to 50,000 years ago—about 65 million years after dinosaurs went extinct.

4. THE PRESERVATION OF FOSSILS IS EXCEPTIONAL.

Sticky asphalt is a pain to clean off the bones, but it also keeps them in pristine condition. This means scientists can look at features as subtle as the markings on carnivore teeth. One study in 2014 looked at microscopic patterns on the teeth of five species of big cats found at La Brea. The researchers concluded that the mountain lion was the only one to survive into the present because it wasn't a picky eater, and could survive changes in its food supply.

5. IT'S SO GOOD THAT THE PITS PRESERVE ENTIRE ECOSYSTEMS.

la brea tar pits asphalt
Courtesy of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County

The big, extinct megafauna might soak up all the attention at La Brea, but paleontologists at the site have also recovered paper-thin fossils of pollen, bees, plant matter, insects, and other tiny organisms. "This is such a unique site because it's one of the only paleontological sites in the world where you can get an entire ecosystem represented," Lindsey says. "The big animals have pretty broad climate tolerances. Something like an insect has a much more narrow range."

This is important because the presence of smaller organisms can relay more specific information about the ecosystem. And because La Brea has such a long record of fossils, scientists can track how those ecosystems changed—or didn't—over time. For instance, one recent study of beetle fossils in the tar pits suggests that the climate of southern California has been relatively stable over the past 50,000 years. Yes, L.A. has had great weather for a very long time.

6. THE TAR PITS ARE DEATH TRAPS—AND YET ALSO SUPPORT LIFE.

A decade ago, scientists discovered about 200 species of microorganisms living in the asphalt with no water, little to no oxygen, and a heavy dose of toxic chemicals. Some of these microbes represented families of bacterial species that had never been seen before. By studying extremophiles thriving in such hostile environments, scientists may learn more about how life might exist on other planets.

7. ONLY ONE HUMAN SKELETON HAS BEEN FOUND THERE.

In 1914, researchers at the tar pits discovered a 9000-year-old set of human remains of a 20-something-year-old female, dubbed "La Brea Woman." Though some had speculated that she had been trapped in the asphalt or that she was Los Angeles's first homicide case, later studies suggested La Brea woman's remains had been ceremonially reburied in the asphalt, possibly with a domestic dog at her side. No other human remains have been found at La Brea. Historical accounts suggest that local tribes like the Chumash and Tongva used the asphalt from the tar pits as a glue or caulk for their wooden boats, so they must've tread carefully around the tar pits. But most of the fossils from the tar pits date from the period before humans populated the region. Lindsey says a new project will look at what was happening at the tar pits during the Holocene—the period that started after the end of the last Ice Age—which could reveal how the arrival of humans might have contributed to the extinction of big mammals.

8. A POLICE DIVER WORKING A MURDER CASE SURVIVED A PLUNGE INTO A PIT.

In 2013, a police diver willingly went 17 feet under the surface of the sludge to hunt for weapons in a cold case homicide investigation. "I've been under moving ships, in underwater reservoir sheds," LAPD Sergeant David Mascarenas told the Los Angeles Times. "This is by far the craziest thing I've ever done." Despite the bad visibility, Mascarenas was apparently able to make out underwater pinnacles of tar, and he did recover multiple items of interest. He probably also succeeded in sending the LAPD's message that they would "go as far as we can to make it as difficult for a suspect to discard evidence."

9. THERE ARE MORE PITS OUT THERE.

archaeologist digging in the tar pits
Courtesy of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County

"There's a couple of sites that have barely been studied but would probably be as rich as the La Brea tar pits," Lindsey says. Venezuela has several tar pits, for instance, but because of the political situation, they haven't been as intensely studied.

10. THE NAME IS REDUNDANT.

"La Brea" in Spanish means "the tar." So when you say "the La Brea tar pits," you're really saying "The the tar tar pits." It's on the long list of tautological place names that also includes Lake Tahoe and the Sahara Desert.

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Guy de la Bedoyere, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Archaeologists Unearth the Victims of a Mysterious Massacre 400 Years Ago on an Australian Island
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Beacon Island
Guy de la Bedoyere, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

The cargo ship Batavia set out from the Netherlands in October 1628, bound for the Dutch colony at present-day Jakarta, Indonesia, with more than 300 crew and passengers. For some still-unknown reason, the ship veered off course to the south and smashed into a coral atoll about 50 miles west of the Australian coast.

What happened over the next few months—culminating in a mysterious and brutal massacre that left at least 125 people dead—is Australia's oldest cold case.

In a story that aired on 60 Minutes Australia, correspondent Liam Bartlett traveled to this "island of horror" where a team of Australian and Dutch scientists is uncovering the nearly 400-year-old skeletons, well preserved in the sand of what is now Beacon Island. They hope to discover what led to the sudden mass slaughter of adults and children.

"We're dealing with a psychopath and some pretty horrible events," Alistair Paterson, an archaeologist at the University of Western Australia and the leader of the research team, tells Bartlett. "There's nothing like it in Dutch history or Australian history."

A screenshot of the Beacon Island dig site from 60 Minutes Australia
A scene from the 60 Minutes Australia report
Kat Long

The Batavia, the flagship of the Dutch East India Company, was on its maiden voyage. The commander, Francisco Pelsaert, and the captain, Ariaen Jacobsz, detested each other. Jacobsz conspired with Pelsaert's deputy, Jeronimus Cornelisz, to take control of the ship and its load of silver and valuable paintings. But before the mutiny could unfold, the ship crashed into the reef in the early morning of June 4, 1629.

About 100 people died in the wreck, while almost 200 made it to a cluster of islands in the Abrolhos chain—treeless, desert-like stretches of sand without water or food. Pelsaert and Jacobsz sailed for help, hoping to reach their original destination nearly 2000 miles away by boat.

The events of the next three months continue to puzzle and horrify modern researchers. Initially, Jeronimus Cornelisz organized food rations and shelter for the survivors on Beacon Island as a way to cement his leadership. But then, he hoarded the weapons and boats for his own use. He ordered his followers to execute the strong, able-bodied men who could pose a threat to his control over the group. Most of the women and children who would be a drain on supplies were also killed, though some women were kept alive as sexual slaves, Bartlett reports.

"Totally Lord of the Flies," Paterson says.

The Batavia massacre
An image from Pelsaert's journal of the voyage
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Cornelisz marooned several men on a nearby island to get them out of the way as the killing rampage continued. But those men, led by a sailor named Wiebbe Hayes, managed to find water and food, and made a primitive protective fort of stone slabs—which still exists as the first European-made structure on Australian soil. In early August, two months after the wreck, Cornelisz and his men attempted to storm Hayes' stronghold and eliminate his band of survivors.

At the last moment, a rescue ship helmed by Pelsaert and Jacobsz appeared on the horizon. Both Hayes and Cornelisz sent out boats to intercept the ship, hoping to establish their version of events as fact and save themselves from punishment. Fortunately, Hayes's men reached the ship first.

Only 80 to 90 survivors out of the Batavia's 300-plus passengers eventually arrived in present-day Jakarta. Cornelisz, who never showed a hint of remorse or offered an explanation for his brutality, was hanged along with his co-conspirators. The bones of his victims, preserved in the island's alkali coral sand for almost four centuries, are now revealing clues to the historical mystery. 

"Horrible things happened to these individuals. They clearly were victims," Paterson tells Bartlett. "But the archaeology allows us to get their story told." 

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iStock
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Archaeologists Find Traces of What Could Be the Oldest Wine in the World
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iStock

Humankind has enjoyed wine for a long time—since the early Neolithic period, at least, judging from ancient residue on prehistoric pottery shards excavated from two sites in Georgia, in the South Caucasus. The fragments potentially date back to 6000 BCE, pushing back the earliest evidence of winemaking by about 600 to 1000 years, as The New York Times reports.

Published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), the findings pinpoint Georgia as one of the very first—if not the first—nations to have mastered winemaking. Before, Iran held the honor, although China can still lay claim to the world's oldest fermented beverage (a cocktail-like concoction of rice, honey, hawthorn fruit, and wild grapes that was enjoyed as early as 7000 BCE).

Leading the PNAS study was Patrick McGovern, a molecular archaeologist from the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. He and his team excavated the remains of two Neolithic villages, located around 30 miles south of Georgia's capital city, Tbilisi. There, they found shards of clay jars—the likely remnants of large, rotund vats, which once could have accommodated as many as 400 bottles worth of today's wine.

Remains of ancient Georgian pottery vessels that may have once contained wine, photographed by Mindia Jalabadze.
(A) Representative early Neolithic jar from Khramis Didi-Gora (B) Jar base (C) Jar base (D) Jar base, interior
Mindia Jalabadze, courtesy of the National Museum of Georgia

These shards were collected for chemical analysis. Eight of them ended up containing tartaric, malic, succinic, and citric acids, all of which had leached into the clay long ago. The combination of these four acids is believed to be present only in grape wine. Researchers also noted traces of ancient grape pollen, starch from grape wine, and signs of prehistoric fruit flies.

Of course, there is the off chance that the jars might have been used to just make grape juice, but their decorations indicate that they weren't made to hold ordinary drinks, researchers argue.

Archaeological evidence dating back to the Bronze Age shows that Georgians have always held wine in great importance. But some experts thought this love of vino dated back even further—and now they believe they have pretty convincing proof.

[h/t The New York Times]

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