La Brea Tar Pits - Exploring the Human Story in the Asphalt

Photos taken by me.

Photos taken by me.


I am a regular visitor to LA, since my fiancee lives there, and I am also a regular and enthusiastic visitor to the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles and the La Brea Tar Pits and Museum where she works. Being an archaeologist I am always interested in the human story and both of these museums have interesting stories to tell. 

In this post I want to focus on The La Brea Tar Pits, which incidentally means the the tar tar pits despite the substance that is still to this day welling up throughout Hancock Park being asphalt and not tar. There is a subtle human story on display at the museum if you know where to look. There is one case of human made artefacts, and there is also a display that explains that one set of human remains (the La Brea Woman) were found in the asphalt but due to valid concerns about sensitivities surrounding the display of human remains, is represented only in a timeline panel of the history of the tar pits. There is more information about the artefacts than the skeleton and looking around the internet it is clear that there remains strong concerns about her status.

The wooden and bone artefacts, mainly hairpins and hunting darts, preserved in the asphalt that are on display were mainly found in Pits 61/67. They, are dated to somewhere between 3000 and 9000 years BP (Before Present - which it turns out is 1950). The La Brea Woman is dated to c.9000-10000 years BP. From such a small display, and with the hindrance of the churning nature of the tar it is difficult to draw out a strong story of the human presence at Rancho La Brea at the end of the last Ice Age beyond simple presence. I find myself wondering whether there were any further material culture finds in the other pits and projects, and whether there has ever been any work done to more fully tell the tale in reports, publications, or exhibitions.

Questions for next time I visit I suppose!