What’s the Deal With the La Brea Tar Pits?

Loren Kantor
4 min readApr 7, 2022
The La Brea Tar Pits just off Wilshire Boulevard.

As you step outside Los Angeles County Museum the smell hits you. It’s an acrid odor as if a road crew were patching potholes on Wilshire Boulevard. Minutes ago you viewed art by Picasso or Georges Braque. As you walk toward the parking lot, you pass a dark, brackish bubbling lake where three fiberglass mastodons recreate the image of ancient beasts trapped in a lake of tar.

It’s called the La Brea Tar Pits, but it’s not really tar. It’s asphalt, the lowest grade of crude oil. The ooze has been seeping from the ground for thousands of years. As the asphalt dries, the lower density oil evaporates. What remains are blobs of icky, gooey, nasty black gook.

The La Brea Tar Pits are the quirkiest tourist site in Los Angeles. They’re a perfect metaphor for the city, a spot where once dominant creatures became trapped and were left to die. Tens of thousands of years ago, the tar pits were covered with water, dirt and leaves. Mammoth elephants appeared searching for sustenance. As they became trapped in the tar they were devoured by ferocious saber-toothed cats. The cats became trapped as well and their bones were perfectly preserved.

In the 1800s, the Native American Chumash tribe used the tar to seal cracks on their wooden plank canoes. Early California settlers used the solidified asphalt to cover the roofs of their houses and to fuel campfires. In 1870, Henry Hancock of Union Oil Company acquired the area in an exploration for oil. (The area was later renamed Hancock Park.) In 1901, geologists found a fossilized ground sloth in the tar. They continued digging and discovered bones of bison, tusked mastodons, giant millipedes, American lions and dire wolves. (Yes, Game of Thrones fans, dire wolves did exist.)

In 1913, the Hancock family gave permission to the new LA County Museum to excavate the site for fossils. In the past century, over 100 pits have been excavated and more than 5.5 million fossils discovered. The preserved bones are dark brown from the petroleum and the oldest fossil is 50,000 years old. They were first put on public display in 1950 in the adjacent George C. Page Museum.

The tar pit lake is comprised of heavy sediment called “gilsonite” which seeps from the earth as oil. The lake is 23 feet deep and methane gas causes the surface to…

Loren Kantor

Loren is a writer and woodcut artist based in Los Angeles. He teaches printmaking and creative writing to kids and adults.