In the heart of Los Angeles lays an iconic piece of the city known for its ability to blend science and culture into one.
Once enveloped by luscious greenery and swarming with different species of animals and insects, the La Brea Tar Pits are now home to a cross-section of fossils, giving the people of today a glimpse into the past and a peek into the future.
According to the International Union of Geological Sciences, the Tar Pits are reportedly the richest Ice Age fossil site in the world.
Although paleoecologist and associate curator Emily Lindsey started working at the Tar Pits about seven years ago, the area has been excavated on and off since the early 1900s, producing millions of specimens.
Experts can pull a significant amount of information from fossils, so scientists like Lindsey are now able to solve puzzles that have been enigmas for centuries.
Lindsey notes how the wealth of research that can be performed at this site is unlike any other in the world.
“The Tar Pits has a really unique opportunity to give insight on these questions that scientists can’t get through normal research,” Lindsey said.
These new developments expose the possibilities that may have caused the extinction event, a 50-year-old mystery.
Most experts and citizens agree that it is important to look into the past to figure out how to plan for the future, whether the information is used to proactively strategize for disasters or as a tool to innovate something new.
Lynne Schneider, a volunteer at the museum for 10 years, said having a strong grasp on what happened in the past is vital to understanding the present.
“It’s how we got here. It’s why we are who we are. People need to understand history, and the Tar Pits in particular is a very special place because there’s no place else in the world that has what we have,” Schneider said. “And if you don’t learn what was, you ain’t going to learn what is. And you won’t be able to plan for what will be, not successfully anyway.”
Founded in 1913, the site began as the Los Angeles Museum of History, Science and Art. As it grew, the departments broke off and became separate entities, with the Tar Pits becoming the field site for the Natural History Museum.
Kaitlin Brown, an assistant professor of archaeology at California State University Northridge, details how “tar pit” is a misleading term, and that the raw material itself is asphaltum. The petroleum byproduct bubbles up to the surface where the lighter components of the oil then evaporate, creating the phenomenon known as an asphaltum seep.
Once this process occurs, experts can determine if a site has the potential to help them answer broader research questions. Nearly every scientist needs to ask one question before proceeding with a dig: How will the dig make a unique contribution to society?
Staff at the Tar Pits recognize the vital role they play in navigating the relationship between society and science, which led them to reflect on how they fit into the larger culture of Los Angeles.
While scientists use technical jargon in their work, it can cause some confusion with the public. This, coupled with the political atmosphere exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic, has ultimately created a rocky relationship between everyday people and the scientific community, Lindsey said.
The La Brea Tar Pits decided to diffuse this animosity and mistrust by creating a fossil lab that is open to all visitors.
“It’s a really good opportunity to teach the public about the nature of scientific inquiry, to showcase how science works, why it’s trustable, how it relates to your life,” Lindsey said. “And also because they see real people doing these jobs, it’s an opportunity to be role models. They can see that it’s not a mysterious thing.”
The museum makes a conscious effort to engage the public, rebuilding the science world’s credibility while including the everyday civilian.
The Tar Pits also recently announced plans to completely re-imagine its 13 acres into a site of discovery of arts, science, nature and culture.
The museum aims to involve civilians in the planning stages and hopes to further its relationship with the public. The project, which was kickstarted in February 2022, invites the everyday individual to ask questions and provide insight.
Senior paleontological preparator Sean Campbell emphasized the importance of speaking to the public to build rapport and spread awareness.
“Unless you speak about what you’re doing, people don’t have a real understanding of what’s actually going on,” Campbell said. “Understanding that our existence is extremely temporary and minuscule in comparison to the deep time and geologic time and even just a few thousand years ago, Los Angeles was so much different.”