August 3 – Anniversary of the "Discovery" of the La Brea Tar Pits

Posted on August 3, 2014

Lovely green grass... a boulder here or there, half submerged in the earth... a patch of weeds over here, a patch of bare dirt over there, a patch of—

Wait!! What is THAT?

It's black. It's sticky–yicky, oozy–squoozy. It's even bubbly!

It's tar!

My sister used to live just a block away from the La Brea Tar Pits, in Los Angeles, California. And not all of the tar is safely fenced off from us modern humans walking around Hancock Park. As we walked along, we often saw sticky patches of fresh tar bubbling up here and there!

It was quite...unnerving!

You know that there is petroleum, or oil, underneath the ground in some places, right? Well, that is the case in some areas of Los Angeles. Some crude oil has been seeping up to the Earth's surface through cracks in the crust; once exposed to the air and sun, some of the lighter components of the oil has been evaporating away. The denser part that is left behind is called natural asphalt, or tar.

The pools of tar have been growing (and sometimes shrinking) over tens of thousands of years. And over the years, the pools have been accumulating a dusting of dust and dirt and a partially covering of leaves and other natural debris. And over those thousands of years, many animals have stumbled into the pits, where they found themselves stuck. Naturally, some predators that saw the stuck animals decided to get an easy dinner—but then they also got stuck!

On this date in 1769, a Spanish friar named Juan Crespi noticed and wrote about the pools of tar—and he is the first person we know saw them. (Obviously, many native Americans must have seen the tar pools at one point or another—but we don't have records that tell us who or when. That is why Crespi gets the label “discoverer,” when really he was probably the first European person—not the first person—to discover the tar pools!)

Did you know...?

  • La Brea means “the tar” in Spanish. So the name The La Brea Tar Pits translates to “The The Tar Tar Pits.”
  • The tar not only killed a lot of animals, it preserved their bones as fossils. At the La Brea Tar Pits there is a museum in which many of the more than 1,000,000 fossils found in the pits are displayed. The species found include more than 150 species (kinds) of plants and more than 460 species of animals.
  • Only one human skeleton has ever been found in the La Brea Tar Pits—a woman who lived and died around ten thousand years ago. There is evidence that suggests that she was deliberately submerged in the tar pit only after she died. In other words, the tar didn't kill her; instead, she was buried in one of the pools.
  • Jose Longinos Martinez wrote in 1792: “Near the Pueblo de Los Angeles there are more than twenty springs of liquid petroleum, pitch, etc. Farther to the west of said town . . . there is a great lake of pitch, with many pools in which bubbles or blisters are constantly forming and exploding. They are shaped like conical bells and, when they burst at their apex, they make a little report.”
    (In this case, report means an explosive sound.)
  • There have been more than 60 tar pits excavated by scientists, although only about 12 were found to hold a lot of fossils.
  • There have been no dinosaur bones discovered in the tar pits. The dinosaurs died out millions and millions of years before the pools of tar formed.
  • The bones found in the tar pits include mammoths, dire wolves, short-faced bears, saber-toothed cats, and giant sloths.

Also on this date:

Anniversary of the first watercraft to reach the North Pole

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