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  • We learn something every day, and lots of times it’s that what we learned the day before was wrong. Bill Vaughan
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Go to La Brea Tar Pits

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Located in the heart of metropolitan Los Angeles, the La Brea Tar Pits are one of the world’s most famous fossil localities. The newly named La Brea Tar Pits Museum (located in the George C. Page Museum building) displays Ice Age fossils — including saber-toothed cats, dire wolves and mammoths — from 10,000 to 40,000-year-old asphalt deposits. But visitors can also watch the processes of paleontology unfold. Every day inside the glass-enclosed Fossil Lab, scientists and volunteers prepare fossils including “Zed,” a recently discovered male Columbian mammoth.

The La Brea Tar Pits and Museum is currently excavating and studying a cache of recently unearthed fossils known as Project 23, an endeavor that could double the Museum’s already tremendous collection of more than three million Ice Age specimens and inform decades of new research. Outside the Museum, in Hancock Park, the Pleistocene Garden and iconic life-size replicas of extinct mammals depict the life that once grew, and roamed, in the Los Angeles Basin.

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 California 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.

Since the summer of 2008 the La Brea Tar Pits Museum 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.