Although called “tar pits”, it’s more accurate to refer to them as “asphalt pits”, since that’s actually the material that’s being produced. Asphalt is usually created through a process that brings it from petroleum. Natural occurring asphalt pits are rare today, but they were more prevalent in early times. The pits helped cultures develop ships because of asphalt’s waterproof qualities; it was also used to make weapons. Today, we mostly use asphalt for roofing and roadways.
It might not seem all that exciting to go look at a mass of thick, black liquid bubbling out of the ground, but it’s actually fascinating when you think of the history of the pit. Many full fossils of animals throughout history, including saber-toothed tigers, bears and mammoths, have been pulled from these pits, and most of them are fully intact. It takes your breath away to see them and wonder just what else might be in there. To date, no dinosaur bones have ever been discovered, and only one set of human bones has been uncovered, belonging to a woman from nearly 9,000 years ago.
There are two interesting things about tar pits. One, most of the animals stuck in tar pits are predator and not prey. Two, along with animal bones, asphalt preserves smaller things like dust, insects, bits and pieces of wood and plants, and very small microfossils. The preservation of remnants in asphalt gives researchers a better understanding of the surrounding area’s history.
One thing you won’t notice with the naked-eye, but is fascinating to know, is that there are living organisms in the tar pits. Bacteria feeds off the asphalt and “burps” the methane that makes the tar pits bubble. An early theory suggested that heat may have been the source of the bubbles.
Right next to the La Brea tar pits is the Page Museum, where you can learn all about the history of the tar pits and some of the animals that have been recovered from them.