La Brea Tar Pits History

George Page with mammoths tar pits 1985

Located in the heart of L.A., La Brea Tar Pits are one of the world’s most famous fossil localities, where more than 100 excavations have been made! It’s a fascinating piece of land. 

Over time, this area has been ancient forest and savannah, ranch land and oilfield, Mexican land grant, and Los Angeles County Park. It provided a natural source of asphalt for thousands of years of human use, it has fascinated scientists and visitors, and it’s a community spot for walks, picnics, exercise boot camps, and playtime. 

Visitors can also watch the processes of paleontology unfold before their eyes. Staff and volunteers dig fossils out from asphalt at outdoor dig sites. Inside the museum, located at the center of the site, our teams work on these discoveries in the see-through Fossil Lab. The Tar Pits provide an incredibly complete record of the different plants and animals that have lived in the L.A. Basin between 50,000 years ago and today. We research and exhibit huge, extinct mammals such as saber-toothed cats, dire wolves, and mammoths, as well as “microfossils”—the tiny remains of plants and animals that can give us clues about past and present climate change. 

History of Rancho La Brea

Rancho La Brea was a Mexican Land Grant of over 4,400 acres given to Antonio Jose Rocha in 1828, with the proviso that the residents of the pueblo could have access to as much asphalt as they needed for personal use. As Los Angeles grew, the Rancho was eventually subdivided and developed. Its last owner was George Allan Hancock, who recognized the scientific importance of the fossils found in the asphaltic deposits. Hancock Park was created in 1924 when he donated 23 acres of the ranch to the County of Los Angeles with the stipulation that the park be preserved and the fossils properly exhibited.

The earliest written mention of the "springs of pitch" was in 1769 in the diary of Juan Crespi, a Franciscan friar who recorded the expedition of Gaspar de Portola, the first Spanish Governor of the Californias from 1769–70. More than a century passed before the first published mention of the occurrence of extinct fauna at Rancho La Brea was made by William Denton in 1875. Until then, the bones found associated with asphalt deposits were considered to be remains of domestic stock or other animals of the region. However, it was not until 1901 that the bones were (again) recognized as fossils of extinct animals by W. W. Orcutt, a prominent Los Angeles geologist. Orcutt, with fellow scientist F. M. Anderson, collected intermittently for about four years until they discovered a fossiliferous deposit that contained more bones than asphaltic matrix. Excited by this rich find, Anderson contacted J. C. Merriam at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1905. Finally, the significance of the fossil bones found at Rancho La Brea was recognized and would not be forgotten.

Peak Excavations

Between 1905 and 1915, excavation at Rancho La Brea was at its peak. Foreign and domestic institutions became interested in acquiring fossils from the area and sent individuals or crews to collect and visiting amateurs were known to take away many souvenirs. Beginning in 1907, J. Z. Gilbert, zoology teacher at Los Angeles High School, periodically brought a work force of students to exhume specimens. Gilbert was the first to create local interest and monetary support through the Southern California Academy of Sciences and the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors and directed the excavation of a large "Academy Pit" in 1910. This served as the nucleus of the fossil vertebrate collections at the (then) fledgling Los Angeles Museum of History, Science and Art (now the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County). Merriam finally secured funds in 1912 for the first large-scale excavations and the University of California excavations yielded thousands of specimens. G. Allan Hancock feared that the collections would be scattered and taken from the community, so in 1913 he gave Los Angeles County the exclusive right to excavate for a two-year period.

The largest and best documented collections at that time were made by the Los Angeles Museum between 1913 and 1915. During this period, 96 sites were excavated yielding well over 750,000 specimens of plants and animals. After Hancock Park was established in 1924, little in the way of formal excavation was accomplished for the next 45 years. Intermittent small-scale excavations between 1929 and 1931 stopped when museum field parties were sent to work in New Mexico. In 1945, systematic coring was undertaken to locate more fossiliferous sites within the park.

During the mid twentieth century excavation and data gathering techniques improved, as did our ability to extract knowledge from data and specimens neither noted nor collected by the early excavators. Early collectors concentrated their efforts on the remains of the larger, more spectacular plants and animals and rarely noticed or collected those of smaller organisms and important information pertaining to geology and specimen orientation was not often recorded. To help rectify such collecting biases, the Rancho La Brea Project began on June 13, 1969 by resuming excavation of a major deposit of fossils in Pit 91 that had been discovered 1915. Newly developed techniques, in concurrence with established paleontological and archaeological methods, were employed to intensely sample and carefully record biological and geological data in the resumed excavation.

George C. Page Museum

Future philanthropist George C. Page’s fascination with the "tar pits" brought him to Rancho La Brea to see the fossils after moving to California from Nebraska by 1917. To his disappointment, he found that the skeletons of Ice Age animals he sought were not onsite, but seven miles away at NHM. Over the course of his long business career, Page founded the Mission Pak Company and became a pioneer developer of industrial parks in the United States. He never forgot the La Brea fossils, however, which led to his offer to finance the construction of an onsite museum that would house the tar pit fossils. Construction began in 1975 and the George C. Page Museum of La Brea Discoveries opened to the public in 1977.

When the foundation for the Page Museum was excavated in 1975, an unusual, laterally extensive, deposit was discovered which contained the largest concentration of articulated and associated specimens ever collected from Rancho La Brea. With the cooperation of the contractors, 20 blocks of bone, plant and matrix were carefully salvaged so that none of the associations and articulations would be lost in the removal process. The fossils preserved in these blocks have not yet been completely prepared but will ultimately provide detailed anatomical information about the extinct animals and insights into their Late Pleistocene ecology.

Discovery in the Parking Lot!

Early in 2006 the Los Angeles County Museum of Art began construction of an underground parking garage at the west end of Hancock Park. Within the confines of the future structure (~100,000 sq. ft.), 16 previously unknown asphaltic fossil deposits were discovered along with the skeleton of a near-complete Columbian mammoth. In order to hasten construction, the 16 deposits were boxed into 23 large “tree-boxes” and crated to a safe location within Hancock Park. The mammoth skeleton was mapped, plaster-jacketed, and excavated and brought to the Museum. Since the summer of 2008, staff has been excavating the boxes and preparing the mammoth material. Dubbed Project 23, the fossils retrieved from this salvage effort may double the size of the existing collections.

In recent years, subsurface testing and excavations for developments in and around Hancock Park have considerably augmented previously available stratigraphic information. A re-evaluation of information recorded during the early days of excavation, coupled with data now available, provide the basis for understanding the mode of accumulation of these Late Pleistocene deposits.

Summary of important dates and people

  • 1875: W. Denton first describes fossils from Rancho La Brea
  • 1901 : W. W. Orcutt and F. Anderson excavate at Rancho La Brea
  • 1905:  J. C. Merriam from the University of California at Berkeley visits the locality and excavates
  • 1907:  J. Z. Gilbert LA High School brings students to excavate
  • 1910:  J. Z. Gilbert opened ‘Academy’ pit with funding from Southern Californian Academy of Sciences
  • 1913:  Hancock, owner of the ranch, gives exclusive rights to Los Angeles County to dig for two years
  • 1913-1915: These three years contain the best documented excavations by the museum and yields 750,000 specimens in 96 sites
  • 1924: Hancock Park designated as a protected park and donated to Los Angeles County
  • 1929-1931: Bliss and others occasionally excavate for the museum
  • 1945: Core samples taken around the park to look for more sites
  • 1963: Rancho La Brea is designated a National Natural Landmark by the National Park Service
  • 1969: Pit 91 is reopened in order to collect intense samples due to original collecting biases (left at 10 ft. in 1915)
  • 1969-2007: Pit 91 is intensely sampled
  • 1975: Philanthropist George C. Page donates funds to open onsite museum; construction begins
  • 1977: The George C. Page Museum of La Brea Discoveries opens
  • 1985: Salvage of Los Angeles County Museum of Art's Japanese Pavilion site and the Hancock Family dump site
  • 2006: 16 fossil deposits discovered during the construction of LACMA’s underground parking structure
  • 2008: Project 23 salvage begins to excavate 23 tree boxes and prepare a near-complete mammoth
  • 2019: The Page Museum and Tar Pits are renamed, collectively, La Brea Tar Pits—in order to highlight the Tar Pits, and emphasize that park and museum are part of one destination.