History

Anniversary party at La Brea Tar Pits off by a few years

tar-pits-excavation-20s.jpg
The way the online world, the media and local institutions abuse both the subject of LA history and the generally lazy news trope of anniversary stories, it's surprising this doesn't happen more. But news buzz has been going around today that the Page Museum is celebrating 100 years of archeological discoveries at the La Brea Tar Pits. It's even in the headline of the press release:

LA BREA TAR PITS AND PAGE MUSEUM CELEBRATE 100 YEARS OF PALEONTOLOGICAL DISCOVERIES THIS YEAR

Except that work at the tar pits has been going on for more than 100 years. And that's just retrieval; LA historical accounts are replete with mentions of bones being spotted in the pools of tar long before Wilshire Boulevard was graded past the site early in the 20th century. The local Tongva people and early LA settlers beat paths to the pits to grab gobs of the asphaltum for use as a sealer. There are also amusing accounts of Ida Haraszthy Hancock, the matriarch of the family that lived in an adobe at the tar pits and for whom the Hancock Parks (both of them) are named, driving a wagon full of oozing tar down to the port for loading onto ships — before she moved up to a big mansion at Wilshire and Vermont, some of which is now in residence at USC.

Nathan Masters does the fact-checking in a blog post he titled Actually, It’s 107 Years of Digging at the La Brea Tar Pits. Sample:

In fact, scientific excavations began under paleontologist John C. Merriam of the University of California in 1906 — 107 years ago. Merriman was alerted to the fossil beds by William Orcutt, a geologist with the Union Oil Company of California (later Unocal) who recognized the fossilized remains of an extinct species of ground sloth while exploring the asphalt deposits in 1901.


Perhaps the Natural History Museum (founded in 1913 as the Los Angeles County Museum of History, Science, and Art) is celebrating 100 years of its own involvement in the diggings?

In any case, there were discoveries even earlier than 1901. Certainly the region’s native Tongva people stumbled across some prehistoric remains, and in the 1870s the owner of Rancho La Brea, Henry Hancock, found some fossils, though he didn’t realize their importance.

Photo of 1920s excavation at Tarpits.org


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