The La Brea Tar Pits—Welcome to Los Angeles
The Bible doesn’t directly mention a world
inhabited by T. rex or an ice age where woolly mammoths
and saber-tooth cats roamed, so some Christians believe
these past “worlds” must be fiction invented by evolutionists.
Other Christians see the piles of extinct creatures and
assume they lived long before the garden of Eden 6,000
years ago, concluding that Genesis 1–11 isn’t literal history.
But there’s another option which embraces both the present
physical evidence and the factual history recorded in the
Bible. The discovery of “lost worlds” opens up an exciting
window into the past that gives us a better appreciation of
God’s bigger plan for history and our place in his plan.
Let’s consider just one test case, known as La Brea Tar
Pits. Did you know that in downtown Los Angeles paleontologists
are still digging up fossils from one of the world’s
most famous ice age sites?
Nobody even knew about the ice age until it was first proposed
in 1824, and nobody recognized a distinct order of animals
called dinosaurs until 1841. But the discovery of mass
grave sites like La Brea gives us incredibly well-preserved
snapshots of much different climates inhabited by species
unlike anything we see today.
Discovery of La Brea Time Capsule from a Past World
It is hard to imagine, but 110 years ago there was no sprawling
mega “City of Angels” (now the second largest city in the
United States). There was just a small city surrounded by
scrubby ranch lands! What sparked the explosive growth of
Southern California’s population? Oil! Back in the early 1900s,
instead of towering skyscrapers, the landscape was a sea of
oil derricks tapping into the “black gold” deep underground.
However, on one ranch the crude oil had seeped to the
surface and collected in pools to produce “tar pits.” These
were first reported in 1769 by Spanish explorer Gaspar de
Portolá. In the late 1860s and early 1870s, the ranch owner
was selling this natural asphalt for paving roads and waterproofing
The owner, Major Henry Hancock, had been collecting
bones and teeth on his ranch for years. The existence
of skeletal remains was first publicly reported in 1875, but
everyone assumed they were modern animals. Then in
the early 1900s geologists realized these fossils belonged
to extinct species, and sporadic collecting began. In 1913
Hancock’s son granted the Natural History Museum of Los
Angeles County excavation rights for two years, and it collected
some 750,000 specimens from 96 sites.
Later the family granted the 23 acres with tar pits to the
county, allowing systematic scientific investigation ever
since. The official name of this research park, “La Brea Tar
Pits,” is actually “doublespeak” because la brea is Spanish for
“the tar.” So it’s the “Tar Tar Pits.” These pits have preserved
a remarkable time capsule showing what the area was like
back in the post-flood ice age.
“Tar” Pits Formed After the Flood
When did the “tar” pits form? The geologic evidence indicates
the pits didn’t form until long after the global flood, so
the creatures must have lived after the flood too.
How do we know that? Several events had to take place in
sequence. About 1,000 feet (300 m) beneath the park lies what
is known as the Salt Lake Oil Field. This pool of oil is stored in
sandy layers deposited across the Los Angeles Basin. But the
oil didn’t originate there. Marine algae buried in mudstone
deeper down first had to produce the oil. Then the oil had to
migrate up to be stored in the sandy beds. Earth movements
then pushed the sand layers upward into an arch, helping to
pond the oil into this pool.
Next, the moving earth also caused a fault
to form at the crest of the arch, known as the
Sixth Street Fault. (Yes, La Brea is located on
Sixth Street.) Afterward, sometime during
the rapid post-flood ice age (Pleistocene),
glacial water then deposited about 200 feet
(61 m) of alluvium (silt and clay) over this
entire area, sealing all the layers below.
But we don’t have tar pits yet! Earthquakes,
which have made Southern California
infamous, eventually opened fractures
in the alluvium, enabling crude oil to
leak up to the surface, where it collected in
pools. There methane and other gases bubbled
off. The lighter petroleum evaporated
or biodegraded, leaving a heavier, bituminous
residue. Strictly speaking it is not tar,
which is a man-made product, but natural
asphalt. It’s very sticky. This sticky death-trap
arose quite recently, after a long series
of geologic events late in the rapid post-flood
ice age (after the ice age alluvium was
Volunteers clean bones found in the La Brea Tar
Pits in Los Angeles. Scientists at La Brea have
consistently uncovered new clues about the ice
age since systematic digging began in 1913.
What Trapped the Fossils?
Such pools, with their watery sheen, looked innocently
inviting to animals. Leaves and other plant debris blew in
and covered their surfaces, while insects hovered over them.
But woe to any animal that ventured into the tar! Once the
first herbivore or insect-eater got trapped in the tar, the carnivores
would sense a “free meal” but become trapped in the
sticky tar themselves. Even birds quickly became victims.
Once a victim was engulfed, the tar acted like a preservative.
Natural decay and scavengers ate away the flesh,
leaving skulls, teeth, and bones. But the sticky chemistry
preserved the bones so well that they remain practically
unchanged from their original state, with up to 80% of the
original bone fiber (collagen) still in them. The tar got into
everything, even in the remote sinuses of skulls and marrow
cavities of bones. Apart from the black or brown color,
the bones look the same as their modern counterparts. No
wonder the original ranch hands thought the bones came
from modern coyotes, wolves, and livestock!
With the help of this preserved “world,” scientists are
reconstructing what life was like late in the ice age. The fossil
teeth retain evidence of wear that reveals details about
their varied diet. Some teeth even contain fossilized plant
fragments that document what the animal had eaten just
before it died. Limb bones appear with adjacent bones so we
can see how they fitted together in life, and the details are
so well preserved that it is possible to discern the courses of
nerves and blood vessels, as well as places where tendons
and ligaments attached. Diseased, injured, and healed bones
and teeth tell us about their struggles in an “alien” world,
which actually wasn’t all that long ago.
Impressive Variety of Extinct Creatures
So far, around 600 species have been found in the pits,
including 60 mammal species. Even a quick perusal of the
list shows an assemblage much different from anything
you’d find today. It includes creatures no longer native
to our hemisphere, including two species of elephants
(mammoths and mastodons), camels, and western horses
(which were extinct by the time the Conquistadors arrived
with their European horses in the sixteenth century).
Other extinct animals are closely associated with the ice
age, such as saber-toothed cats, dire wolves, ground sloths,
and the condor-like teratorns, which were even bigger than
Historical records report that some species, including all
the identified snake species (at least 16), have lived in the Los
Angeles area in the past, even if not observed there today.
Fossilized amphibians, including toads, frogs, and a species of
salamander, are still found in the area today.
Most of the fossilized land snails are
still found in California today, living at
elevations between 4,000 and 10,000
feet (1200–3000 m) in the cooler, moister
climates. What can we learn from this?
Clearly, these creatures lived not long ago,
but the climate in the Los Angeles area was
then much cooler and wetter.
The insect fossils tell us another story.
Most of the insect fossils were recovered
from the brain cavities of larger vertebrate
skulls. This suggests the carcasses decomposed
slowly over months, which indicates
this was not during the catastrophic
one-year flood of Noah. Characteristically,
blowflies and flesh flies appear soon after
the animal dies, followed by various beetles,
as we find in the skulls.
Was This Before Humans Arrived?
None of the deep layers of fossil deposits
have human remains. But near the surface,
portions of a human skull and associated
skeleton were found in one tar pit in 1914,
at a depth of 6–10 feet (2–3 m). The bones
were determined to belong to one individual.
So it is clear that humans had spread
from Babel to this part of the New World
around the end of the ice age.
Structural features of the skull are
not unlike those of the aboriginal people
who lived on the nearby Channel
Islands and the coastal areas of Southern
California prior to the arrival of
From forensic examination, scientists
concluded that these remains
were those of a female who stood about
4 feet 8 inches (1.4 m) tall. There is disagreement
over her age at death. One
study determined that she was between
25 and 30 years old, while a later study
estimated only 17 to 18 years. What can
we learn about her world?
Some early investigators concluded
that she got trapped there by accident.
However, later researchers noticed
that her cranium had traumatic lesions
caused by blows from a grinding stone,
which was buried very close by. This
suggests she was LA’s first documented
homicide victim. Another investigator
disagreed, noting that the grinding
stone appeared to be ceremonially
defaced. He also pointed to shell and
stone artifacts and the skull of a small
domestic dog, which are evidence of
secondary reburial. Such disagreeing
interpretations remind us not to be too
dogmatic when interpreting the past
based on so few incomplete clues.
Dating the Fossil Site
Investigators have also found scattered
human artifacts, most notably
three broken darts and the wooden
blunt foreshaft for an atlatl dart. An
atlatl was a device for throwing a dart
or spear. Thus, an atlatl-using people
once inhabited Southern California,
likely contemporaneously with the
now extinct animals.
Fossil bones found with cut marks
indicate that the earliest human inhabitants
used those darts to hunt and kill
some of the large mammals. These findings
are important because radiocarbon
dating the wood helps us cross-check
the radiometric dates for the human
remains. Keep in mind that the evolutionary
assumptions behind all radiometric
methods result in hugely inflated
dates in the unobserved past that are
inconsistent with the eyewitness biblical
account of earth history.
The skeleton of “La Brea Woman” radiocarbon dated at
9,000 ±80 years BP (before present), while one of the broken
wooden atlatl dart foreshafts dated at 4,450 years. Collagen
from various animal bones has yielded dates of 11,000 to
36,000 years. Comparing samples of wood in the same tar
pit indicated that the lower levels yielded an average age of
38,000 years, while fossil wood in the upper levels yielded
an average of 13,500 years.
What does all this mean? By no means are these correct
absolute ages, because radiocarbon ages beyond about 1000
BC don’t match historically confirmed dates and they contradict
the biblical timeline. Furthermore, radiocarbon dating of
pre-flood vegetation (in coal) yields dates up to 48,500 years,
not 300 million years as evolutionists maintain. Their absolute
dates must be wrong.
Yet relative dates can have value. Fossils further down in
the ground consistently yield older radiocarbon dates than
fossils near the surface. These dates are consistent with
the end of the recent ice age, and even evolutionists would
agree. It is obvious these remains are very recent because
they sit on the present land surface and the tar is still oozing
From a biblical perspective, the sediments of the Los
Angeles Basin likely accumulated very soon after the flood
cataclysm ended about 4,350 years ago. This also means the
oil formed quickly after these sediments were deposited.
This sequence fits well with the young-earth creationist
model for the cause of the ice age. Volcanic activity warmed
the ocean waters during the flood, and volcanic dust in the
atmosphere set up the necessary conditions for a cycle of
heavy precipitation and cooling temperatures. Snow accumulated
rapidly in high latitudes and altitudes to produce
ice sheets and glaciers.
As ocean water was piled into ice on the continents, sea
level dropped, exposing a land bridge between Asia (Siberia)
and North America (Alaska). Animals migrating from the
ark were able to cross from Asia into North America. Some
eventually arrived in the Los Angeles area. Because of their
scattering from Babel, people followed the same path, seeking
suitable places to settle.
As various kinds of animals migrated from Noah’s ark,
they bred different varieties (now called species). Where
varieties were suited to different and changing environments,
they settled. So the varieties that eventually arrived
in the Los Angeles area looked different from their ancestral
on-the-ark counterparts. This variation within God’s
created kinds has continued to this day, so many of the
extinct species that were fossilized in the tar pits look different
from the creatures that live in the area today. It’s part
of God’s plan for animals to fill the earth and survive its ongoing
What Was the Environment Like?
As a rule, plants give us an excellent indication of past climate.
The types of plants that grow in a particular region
closely reflect its temperature and humidity.
Thousands of years ago, when these fossils formed in the
tar pits, the region had at least four types of environments
that are not the same as today. Some of the plants, such as
coastal redwoods and dogwoods, are now found only well to
the north. Other kinds of plants, such as sycamore and raspberry,
are now found lining mountain streams. The moist climate
and wooded habitat in the Los Angeles area at the end
of the ice age was conducive to supporting herds of large animals
such as mammoths, bison, ground sloths, and horses.
So the tar pits give us clues to reconstructing the “lost
world” of a whole biological community, with cooler and
moister weather, hinting at the interaction of a thriving web
of plants and animals.
Opening the Time Capsule
It’s intriguing that so many of the species buried in the
La Brea Tar Pits are different from those we find living in
the Los Angeles region today. Clearly, they lived in different
climate conditions, and the evidence indicates that this
climate predominated at the end of the post-flood ice age,
about 4,000 years ago.
Adding to the intrigue, those creatures had specialized
traits for the cold, which gave them advantages for their
climate and made them look different from other varieties
that descended from the original families that left the ark
and spread over the earth. Our Creator God knew what they
would have to face in the early post-flood world, as the earth
recovered from the flood upheaval. So he provided them
with the designs and DNA needed to breed different varieties
to adapt quickly to those changing conditions and obey
his command to fill the earth again.
What a lesson about God’s plan for us today! “O Lord, our
Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” (Psalm
8:9). The same wise Creator who provided for those ark creatures
as they diversified and spread out to inhabit the postflood
world—and who clothed the lilies of the fields—is our
heavenly Father who promises to care for us.
Animals of Los Angeles
Saber-toothed cats are one
of the most iconic ice age
creatures. Their fossils appear in
abundance at La Brea, indicating
they thought the tar pits were
an inviting hunting ground but
found they were a deadly trap.
North American Camel
Camels once roamed North
America, as we now know from
the many fossils at La Brea. They
thrived on the prairie grasses
that were common during the
ice age in the cool, moist areas
south of the ice sheets.
It wouldn’t be an ice age without
mammoths. Columbian mammoths,
taller and heavier than their
modern counterparts (the Asian
elephants), once called California
their home. Their immense size
helped them keep warm.
Giant Ground Sloth
Elephants weren’t the only mammals that
got really big during the ice age. Giant
ground sloths reached 10 feet (3 m) tall and
weighed up to 1,000 pounds (455 kg). These
sloths, now extinct, walked on all fours and
stood on their hind feet to strip leaves from
the tops of trees.
Scientists Are Astonished by the Diversity of Animals Trapped at the La Brea Tar Pits
- 60+ Mammal Species
cats, American lions,
pumas, lynxes, jaguars, dire
wolves, coyotes, dogs, foxes,
short-faced bears, black
bears, grizzly bears, bison,
camels, llamas, western
horses, ground sloths, tapirs,
deer, pronghorn antelopes,
skunks, weasels, badgers,
hog-like peccaries, rabbits,
squirrels, rats, mice, moles,
shrews, and bats
- 130+ Bird Species
Including: grebes, herons,
egrets, waterfowl, storks,
vultures, condors, eagles
(including golden and
bald eagles), kites, hawks,
falcons, quails, turkeys,
cranes, shorebirds, gulls,
pigeons, doves, roadrunners,
larks, jays, ravens, crows,
towhees, and sparrows
- 400+ Reptile, Fish, and Insect Species
worked as a consultant research geologist in both Australia and the US. Author of numerous
scientific articles, Dr. Snelling is now director of research at Answers in Genesis–US.
https://answersingenesis.org/fossils/types-of-fossils/la-brea-tar-pits-welcome-los-angeles/ This article originally appeared on answersingenesis.org