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Unveiling the Mysteries: The La Brea Tar Pits in the 1920s and 1930s

Nestled within the bustling urban landscape of Los Angeles lies a remarkable geological and paleontological treasure—the La Brea Tar Pits. Known for its unique asphalt seeps and the wealth of prehistoric fossils it holds, the La Brea Tar Pits captivated the scientific community and the public alike during the 1920s and 1930s. Let’s delve into the history of the La Brea Tar Pits during this period, exploring the discoveries, scientific advancements, and the public's fascination with the ancient creatures preserved in the tar.

The origins of the La Brea Tar Pits trace back thousands of years, as petroleum seeped to the surface, forming pools of sticky asphalt. Native peoples in the region were aware of the tar's adhesive properties, using it for various purposes. However, it was not until the late 19th century that the scientific significance of the tar pits was recognized.

In the 1920s, paleontologist Dr. John C. Merriam spearheaded the scientific excavation efforts at the La Brea Tar Pits. Working in collaboration with the Los Angeles County Museum, he led numerous excavations that unearthed a wealth of fossils, including dire wolves, saber-toothed cats, giant sloths, and mammoths.

The discoveries made at the La Brea Tar Pits during the 1920s and 1930s provided unprecedented insights into the prehistoric world of the Pleistocene epoch. The tar pits acted as natural traps, ensnaring unsuspecting animals that ventured too close to the sticky asphalt. The fossilized remains preserved within the tar offered scientists a unique window into the ancient fauna and their behaviors.

Notably, the collection of saber-toothed cat fossils found at the tar pits revolutionized our understanding of these prehistoric predators. The abundance of their remains provided valuable information about their physical characteristics, hunting strategies, and ecological roles. The scientific research conducted at the La Brea Tar Pits greatly contributed to our knowledge of prehistoric ecosystems and the evolutionary history of Southern California.

The discoveries at the La Brea Tar Pits captivated the public's imagination during the 1920s and 1930s. As news spread of the fossil finds and ongoing excavations, the tar pits became a popular attraction for locals and tourists alike. Visitors marveled at the ancient skeletons on display, showcasing the size and ferocity of long-extinct creatures.

The Los Angeles County Museum played a pivotal role in promoting public engagement with the tar pits. Exhibits showcased the fossil discoveries and educated visitors about the science behind paleontology. The fascination with the tar pits extended beyond scientific interest, permeating popular culture through films, literature, and art. The La Brea Tar Pits became an iconic symbol of Los Angeles, representing the city's unique natural heritage.

The significance of the La Brea Tar Pits as a paleontological site has not diminished over time. Today, ongoing research and excavations continue to uncover new fossils, further enhancing our understanding of the Pleistocene era. The George C. Page Museum, established in 1977, serves as a repository for the fossils and offers visitors a chance to explore the rich history and natural wonders of the tar pits.

The La Brea Tar Pits in the 1920s and 1930s captivated the scientific community and the public, shedding light on the ancient world preserved within the asphalt seeps. The discoveries made during this period revolutionized our understanding of prehistoric ecosystems, enabling us to reconstruct the Pleistocene era in remarkable detail. The La Brea Tar Pits remain a testament to the scientific significance of natural wonders and their ability to evoke curiosity, wonder, and a deeper appreciation for the ancient creatures that once roamed the land.


Pic 1: 1927 pic with oil derricks in the background.

Photo from the USC Archives.

Pic 2: An aerial looking NE over the intersection of Fairfax and Wilshire back in 1920. Photo from the USC Archives.

Pic 3: A bridge over one of the pits - 1937. The E. Clem Wilson Building is in the distance. Photo from the UCLA Archives.

Pics 4 & 5: Both from 1932 and from the USC Archives.

Pic 6: Police searching one of the pits for a missing girl - 1935. Photo from the UCLA Archives.

Pic 7: Lovvvvve this aerial from 1937 because it shows the old Hancock Ranch house (lower left!) The original structure was built in the 1870s after Henry Hancock had acquired a huge portion of Rancho La Brea. It was torn down around 1950 I believe. Photo from the USC Archives.

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