La Brea

According to the Cambridge Dictionary of Spanish, brea means tar or pitch. Confusingly, the Spanish definition provided alongside the English translation is “sustancia resinosa de ciertas coníferas.” Roughly, “the resinous substance of certain coniferous plants,” which sounds more like resin than pitch. The Royal Spanish Academy, however, makes it clear that distillation is the key word; etymologically, brea might be a distant relative of brew.

The La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles, according to this fascinating 2017 paper,

…located in an urban park called Hancock Park, are famous for the numerous oil and bitumen seeps, and the rich discoveries of Pleistocene plant and animal fossils… But Hancock Park is also characterized by intense degassing, which is visible as bubbling in oil or asphalt seeps and in the Lake Pit, and is suspected (but never investigated) to occur throughout the grassy ground of the park. Gas leaks also occur in streets adjacent to the park…

The pits are human excavations – Henry Hancock operated an asphalt mine on the site in the 1870s, when Los Angeles wasn’t much of a city yet – but the seeps are natural, of course. Maj. Hancock was apparently the first – or at least the first non-native American – to discover the fossils trapped in the asphalt there:

Since the early 20th century, more than one million bones have been excavated from the pits…

The tar pits have so many fossils precisely because of the tar, which one can still see bubbling to the surface in spots throughout Hancock Park. The gooey asphalt that trapped and entombed the animals turns out to be a great preservative…

Among them are many giant beasts, including mammoths, mastodons and the short-faced bear. (Only its snout was short; the bear stood more than 11 feet tall, much larger than today’s grizzly, polar and brown bears.) There are two species of bison — one of them with seven-foot horns — and some animals not typically associated with North America, including camels that stood taller than modern dromedaries.

Some of these fossils are housed in the on-site museum. I haven’t been inside but I’m sure it’s wonderful. A few hundred yards to the west, there’s another, larger museum: the Los Angeles County Museum of Arts, or LACMA. It was being rebuilt when I was there so most of its collections were closed to the public. There were no striking revelations waiting for me there, unlike in the Getty, where I had discovered James Ensor and Fernand Khnopff.

I think it’s fortunate that there’s a natural history museum next to a major art museum, and that some of the former’s exhibits are out in the open. I remember walking through Hancock Park towards LACMA and almost stepping into small bitumen pools half-hidden by dry August leaves. I had seen California’s oil wells by then, and had seen wells in other parts of the world earlier, but I wasn’t prepared for the seeps at my feet. I took two blurry pictures of those little wonders of nature.

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