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Courtesy of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County
Courtesy of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County

10 Fascinating Facts About the La Brea Tar Pits

Courtesy of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County
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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©Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Inside the Kitchen of Thomas Jefferson's Acclaimed—and Enslaved—Chef James Hemings
 ©Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello
©Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello

James Hemings once prepared lavish dishes for America's founding fathers at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's Virginia plantation. Though enslaved, he trained in France to become one of colonial America's most accomplished chefs. Now, archaeologists have uncovered the kitchen where Hemings created his elaborate banquets, LiveScience reports.

Researchers at Monticello are conducting a long-term effort, the Mountaintop Project, to restore plantation premises, including slave quarters, to their original appearance. Archaeologists excavated a previously filled-in cellar in the main house's South Pavilion, where they found artifacts like bones, toothbrushes, beads, and shards of glass and ceramics. Underneath layers of dirt, experts also uncovered the kitchen's original brick floor, remnants of a fireplace, and the foundations of four waist-high stew stoves.

"Stew stoves are the historic equivalent of a modern-day stovetop or cooking range," archaeological field researcher manager Crystal Ptacek explains in an online video chronicling the find. Each contained a small hole for hot coals; centuries later, the cellar floor still contains remains of ash and charcoal from blazing fires. Hemings himself would have toiled over these stoves.

During the colonial period, wealthy families had their slaves prepare large, labor-intensive meals. These multi-course feasts required stew stoves for boiling, roasting, and frying. Archaeologists think that Jefferson might have upgraded his kitchen after returning from Paris: Stew stoves were a rarity in North America, but de rigueur for making haute French cuisine.

Hemings traveled with Jefferson to France in the 1780s, where for five years he was trained in the French culinary arts. There, Hemings realized he was technically a free man. He met free black people and also learned he could sue for his freedom under French law, according to NPR.

And yet he returned to the U.S. to cook for Jefferson's family and guests, perhaps because he didn't want to be separated from his family members at Monticello, including his sister, Sally. He later negotiated his freedom from Jefferson and trained his brother Peter as his replacement. Hemings ended up cooking for a tavern keeper in Baltimore, and in 1801, shortly after turning down an offer from now-president Jefferson to be his personal chef, he died by suicide.

"We're thinking that James Hemings must have had ideals and aspirations about his life that could not be realized in his time and place," Susan Stein, senior curator at Monticello, told NPR in 2015. "And those factors probably contributed to his unhappiness and his depression, and ultimately to his death."

Hemings contributed to early America's culinary landscape through dessert recipes like snow eggs and by introducing colonial diners to macaroni and cheese, among other dishes. He also assisted today's historians by completing a 1796 inventory of Monticello's kitchen supplies—and he's probably left further clues in the estate's newly uncovered kitchen, says Gayle Jessup White, Monticello's community engagement officer—and one of James's relatives.

"My great-great-great-grandfather Peter Hemings learned to cook French cuisine from his brother James on this stove," White tells Mental Floss. "It was a spiritual moment for me to walk into the uncovered remains of Monticello's first kitchen, where my ancestors spent much of their lives. This discovery breathes life into the people who lived, worked and died at Monticello, and I hope people connect with their stories."

[h/t Live Science]

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Crossrail
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
8 Amazing Things Discovered During the Expansion of the London Underground
Crossrail
Crossrail

In 2009, the city of London embarked on a massive infrastructure project: a 73-mile underground railway network called the Elizabeth Line that will ultimately boost urban train capacity by 10 percent. Slated to be up and running by 2018, the undertaking allowed archaeologists to take an unprecedented peek at swathes of subterranean London, and yielded plenty of cool historic treasures from various periods. Here's a small sampling of the finds.

1. A GRAVEYARD CONTAINING VICTIMS OF THE BLACK DEATH

A skeleton belonging to a victim of the Black Plague, unearthed by archaeologists while expanding the London Underground.
Crossrail

While excavating London's Charterhouse Square in 2013, archaeologists unearthed dozens of skeletons. Scientists analyzed the remains and discovered that some of them belonged to victims of the Black Death—a.k.a. bubonic plague—who succumbed to pandemics that swept 14th- and 15th-century England.

Teeth contained traces of DNA from the plague bacterium Yersinia pestis, and radio-carbon dating indicated that the burial ground had been used during two outbreaks of plague, one from 1348 to 1350 and another during the 1430s. The skeletons also showed signs of poor diets and hard lifestyles, which might have been contributing factors for why Londoners were so susceptible to the plague.

But the so-called plague pit didn't just contain those who'd succumbed to disease. Not only were some bodies plague-free, "what they found was, not bodies tumbled together as they'd expected, but rather orderly burials with people laid in rows with their bodies orientated in one direction," historian Gillian Tindall told The Guardian. This suggests not all of them died due to plague but from other, more everyday causes.

2. AN 8000-YEAR-OLD STONE TOOL

An 8000-year-old piece of flint, discovered by archaeologists while expanding the London Underground.
Crossrail

While digging at North Woolrich, in southeast London, archaeologists discovered a Mesolithic-era site along the Thames where early humans are thought to have crafted tools around 8500 to 6000 years ago. The encampment had traces of campfires and flint scatters, and experts recovered 150 pieces of flint, including an 8000-year-old stone tool.

"This is a unique and exciting find that reveals evidence of humans returning to England and in particular the Thames Valley after a long hiatus during the Ice Age," Crossrail lead archaeologist Jay Carver said in a news release. "It is one of a handful of archaeology sites uncovered that confirms humans lived in the Thames Valley at this time. The concentration of flint pieces shows that this was an exceptionally important location for sourcing materials to make tools that were used by early Londoners who lived and hunted on Thames Estuary islands."

3. A VULGAR VICTORIAN CHAMBER POT

A bawdy Victorian chamber pot, discovered by archaeologists while excavating future London Underground sites.
Crossrail

While excavating the Stepney Green station in East London, archaeologists came across a 19th-century cesspit dating to sometime after 1850. The waste hole was filled with tobacco pipes and fragments of pots, including a raunchy Victorian chamber pot. It was once likely kept under a bed, and allowed for its owner to do their business in private during the evening hours.

The pot's bottom contains a cartoon of a grimacing man, encircled by the phrase "Oh what I see/I will not tell." Witty cursive lines once covered the exterior of the broken vessel. Archaeologists were able to decipher one line, which read "… when you in it want to p-s/ Remember they who gave you this."

4. A TUDOR ERA BOWLING BALL (OR SKITTLES BALL)

A Tudor-era bowling or skittles bowl, discovered by archaeologists while excavating future sites for the London Underground's expansion.
Crossrail

In addition to the aforementioned cesspit, excavations at Stepney Green also revealed a 15th-century Tudor manor house, complete with moat. Originally home to a rich family named Fenne, it was once called King John's Court or Palace, and later became known as the Worcester House after its owner the Marquis of Worcester.

In 2013, archaeologists excavated the home's foundations, moat, and boundary walls. Inside the moat they discovered a wooden ball made from willow, which was likely either used for bowling or skittles, a European lawn game. Other recovered items included fine glassware, tableware, and cooking and storage vessels, all of which were buried when the moat was either destroyed or filled in.

5. A 55-MILLION-YEAR-OLD PIECE OF AMBER

55-million-year-old amber, retrieved by engineers while expanding the London Underground
Crossrail

Slated to open in late 2018, London's new Canary Wharf business district station is located deep below a mixed-use development called Crossrail Place. While tunneling at Canary Wharf was too deep to disturb any buried relics, engineers were still able to retrieve a piece of 55-million-year-old amber from nearly 50 feet below the site's dock bed before construction began. It's the oldest amber to have ever been found in London, and is also notable considering that amber isn't often found in the UK to begin with.

Amber, or fossilized tree resin, takes millions of years and proper burial conditions to form. These preserved relics often contain prehistoric plants and creatures, suspended in the clear material. Experts said they plan to analyze the Canary Wharf amber to learn more about prehistoric environmental conditions and vegetation. The fossil also contained bubbles of trapped gas, which scientists said might yield new scientific insights about global warming.

6. A RARE ROMAN MEDALLION

A rare Roman medallion dating back to 245 CE, found by archaeologists during the London Underground expansion.
Crossrail

Archaeologists excavating Crossrail's Liverpool Street site discovered more than 100 mostly-copper Roman coins, along with a handful of silver currency. They ranged in date from 43 CE, during the reign of Emperor Claudius, to 348 CE.

One of the most exciting discoveries among these coins was a rare bronze medallion that was issued to mark the New Year in 245 CE. Presented by Emperor Phillip I (also called Philip the Arab) to a high-ranking government official, it's only the second example of its kind that's ever been found, according to The Guardian.

"You wonder how it got there, who brought it with them, and then how did they lose it—were they heartbroken?" speculated Jackie Keily, a curator at the Museum of London who organized an exhibition of 500 Crossrail artifacts in 2017.

7. A CLUSTER OF ROMAN SKULLS

A Roman skull, uncovered by archaeologists during the expansion of the London Underground.
Crossrail

In 2013, Crossrail workers found Roman pottery and around 20 Roman skulls while working on the Liverpool Street station site. Other Roman skulls had been found in the area, along the historic River Walbrook, and some speculated that they belonged to rebels led by the Iceni warrior-queen Boudicca, who revolted against the Roman Empire during the 1st century CE. But since the newly unearthed skulls were found in sediment that had accumulated in a bend of the river, archaeologists believe that they likely washed out of an eroded Roman cemetery long ago. Moreover, the skulls appear to date to after the uprising.

8. HEADSTONES OF VICTIMS OF THE GREAT PLAGUE

The gravestone of plague victim Mary Godfree, discovered at Liverpool Street in London during the Crossrail excavations.
Crossrail

On September 2, 1665, a girl named Mary Godfree succumbed to the plague—one of 95 people from the same church parish who died from the disease that day. She was remembered solely by a line in a burial register until October 2015, when archaeologists discovered her limestone burial stone while excavating the new Liverpool Street Crossrail station site.

The area was originally home to the historic New Churchyard burial ground, also called the Bedlam burial ground. There, archaeologists discovered a mass grave, along with the remnants of 10 stone markers. Godfree's headstone didn't mark the presence of her actual grave, as the headstone had been removed sometime during the 18th century and reused in the foundation of a wall. Still, it revealed new insights into how and where the rediscovered Londoner was buried, and what burial conditions were like during the Great Plague.

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