January 24, 2004 | David F. Coppedge

La Brea Tar Pits Trap Scientists

Sid Perkins of Science News dropped in at La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles, and got stuck, not in tar, but in the sticky evolutionary interpretations of these world-famous fossil deposits.  This fossil bed, right in one of the ritziest parts of Los Angeles (adjacent to the County Art Museum), Perkins whimsically calls “L.A.’s oldest tourist trap” because of the many mammals and birds that once paid a visit, never to exit again.  Even roaches checked in, but they didn’t check out.  Millions of bones have been uncovered at the site, making it one of the richest Pleistocene fossil deposits in the world.
    The standard explanation of the fossils is that herbivores became trapped in the gooey tar.  Carnivores and birds of prey, leaping on the easy meals, became trapped also, and all sank together into the sticky preservative  The tale is not without its mysteries, however:

  • Disarticulation.  The bones are completely jumbled. 

One of the most conspicuous findings from a census of bones is the near absence of complete skeletons.

  • Carnivore ratios.  A large majority of bones are from carnivores:

In a result that counters intuition, bones of predators were almost seven times as common in Pit 91 as were those of prey.  Overall, an estimated 80 percent of the mammals were carnivores, and 60 percent of the birds were birds of prey.  That’s a surprise, says [John] Harris [curator of the museum at the site], since the number of herbivores in a stable ecosystem always outnumbers the predators by a wide margin.
    Presumably, Perkins suggests, “Each herbivore entrapment probably triggered a feeding frenzy that resulted in up to a dozen predators being trapped as well.”

  • Skull to limb ratios.  Most of the bones are skulls:

Of the seven mammal species that the team analyzed from Pit 91, skulls and jawbones were collected most often.  Only half as many limb bones were recovered as would be expected from the number of heads retrieved.

One possibility is that trapped herbivores, like bison or sloths, became tired and fell on their sides, exposing only one set of ribs and limbs to the meat-eaters.  But the same puzzle exists with the carnivore bones:

Even carnivores became sitting ducks; the predators’ limb bones don’t show up in the pits in the proportions expected if their carcasses had escaped scavengers.  Dire wolves, an ice age predator larger than today’s gray wolf, appear to have been scavenged less often than the saber-toothed cats.  However, the large numbers of missing bones among any of La Brea’s meat eaters is surprising, says [Blair] Van Valkenburgh [of UCLA].  Modern carnivores rarely feed on other large carnivores, even when carcasses are available, she notes.

  • Isotope Ratios.  Scientists trying to deduce the last meal of victims by measuring isotopes of carbon and nitrogen in the bones found some puzzles:

The carbon-isotope ratios found in the bones of dire wolves that lived 30,000 and 15,000 years ago have proved mysterious because they can’t be explained by the consumption of herbivores, such as bison, horses, and turkeys, known to be living in the La Brea ecosystem at that time.
    A hypothesis is offered is that the wolves had eaten seafood, perhaps sea lions, at the coast – but that is nine miles away.

  • Clean bones.  The bones show little exposure to the elements:

Several characteristics of the fossil bones suggest that the remains of trapped animals sank quickly into the tar, the researchers note.  First, 93 percent of the bones show no sign of exposure to the weather.  Almost half of the specimens show little or none of the outer-surface abrasion that indicates, for example, the scouring action of sediments.  Finally, only 2 percent of the bones show any evidence that they had been gnawed or chewed by scavengers.

This remarkable site, encompassing about 23 acres, has yielded “the remains of more than 650 species, including at least 60 mammal species, 140 types of plants, 120 varieties of insects, and 60 species of snails and other mollusks” during the past century of excavation, and current paleontologists have a huge backlog to inventory.  The fossils include many extinct mammals, such as “dwarf pronghorn antelopes, short-faced bears, ground sloths, and the North American versions of lions and camels,” (as well as mastodons, mammoths and one human skeleton), along with bones of all the current L.A. mammals “with the curious exception of opossums.”  Visitors to the attractive George C. Page Museum can watch scientists and volunteers at work separating the specimens from the matrix using fine brushes and picks – a painstaking, time-consuming process.


1Sid Perkins, “L.A.’s Oldest Tourist Trap: At Rancho La Brea, death has been the pits for millennia,” Science News, Week of Jan. 24, 2004; Vol. 165, No. 4.

Perkins ends with an anecdote about 60 cedar waxwings getting stuck in a tar seep last November, indicating that animals still get trapped.  The problem is, cedar waxwings are not birds of prey.  The fossil birds of prey outnumbered non-carnivorous birds 60% to 40%.  In this case, he surely would have mentioned if 90 eagles or vultures had been seen swooping onto the trapped songbirds.  The facts indicate that the present is not the key to the past.
   There’s always a story one can weave to explain away hard facts, but La Brea exemplifies a sticky situation for evolutionists.  In fact, there are even more serious problems at La Brea that Perkins did not mention.  (Thanks to William Weston for the following, from results of his independent research involving many visits to the site for years; you can read parts of his report at the Creation Research Society website.)  Add these pieces to the puzzle:

  1. Hard-packed asphalt.  From the earliest days of discovery, no large pools or lakes of asphalt were ever reported at La Brea.  Only small tar seeps, too small to trap large mammals, were ever seen.  Most of the site consisted of hard pavement-like asphalt that could easily be walked on by a mastodon or bison or camel.  The large lake seen there today was artificially produced later from an asphalt quarry operation that was filled in with water.  (Yet plastic mastodons were later installed as if sinking into the lake, to mislead the public.)  Visitors today can find a couple of small oozing seeps, but no large expanses of tar that presumably trapped millions of prehistoric animals.  Perkins suggests that the asphalt softened during hot seasons, but that does not happen today, and is just a story without observational support.
  2. Narrow pits.  The notion of tar ‘pits’ is a myth.  The ‘pits’ are narrow, funnel-shaped assemblages of fossils embedded in asphalt and sand.  Of the pits excavated, only seven showed dense concentrations of fossils.  None of them is large enough to imagine trapping a huge mammal, yet mammoth and mastodon bones have been found in them.  (Weston shows a cartoon of a mammoth on a high platform trying to dive into one of the funnels and scrunch his body into it.)  They give the impression of being blowholes from oil shale underneath.  Weston describes one of them:

    The seven major fossil-bearing pits were of various sizes.  On average, they were about 15 feet in diameter and tapered down 25 feet to a hole several inches wide. … One unusual pit was only four feet wide.  Designated as Pit 16, it had vertical sides that went down 21 feet before it tapered three more feet to the typical three-inch-wide chimney.  Somehow numerous animals including dire wolves, saber-tooth cats, coyotes, camels, bison, horses, and even the bulky mastodon had managed to squeeze themselves into a hole not much wider than a bathtub.

  3. Radiocarbon date improbabilities.  Carbon-14 dates in Pit 9 were claimed to indicate 38,000 years old at the bottom and 13,500 years at the top.  For the pit to be a death trap, that means the tar would have had to remain liquefied for about 24,000 years.  Yet crude oil emerging from the ground begins to thicken and harden immediately when exposed to the air, forming a crust.  Sunlight, heat and oxidation all harden tar relatively quickly.  Therefore, “the existence of open pits of tar that could trap animals over a period of thousands of years,” Weston says, “must be regarded as highly improbable.”
  4. More on the carnivore ratios.  Weston’s figures show 85% of the total number of animals as carnivores, and 70% of the birds as being flesh-eating.  “The uncontested leader is the eagle,” he points out.  “It is puzzling why eagles would be so vulnerable to entrapment.  Not only are they quite rare when compared to such teeming populations as pigeons and doves, but they are also larger and more muscular and thus less likely to be victimized.”
  5. Observational ratios.  When modern animals and birds are found to become stuck in tar seeps, they match the expected carnivore to herbivore ratios.  Weston provides a reported example from 1934 with 131 birds of 13 species trapped.  The non-carnivorous birds outnumbered the birds of prey 22 to 1, similar to the expected balance in nature.
  6. Few waterfowl.  Wading birds like ducks and geese would presumably be the most likely to suffer entrapment (picture a whole flock settling down together into an oily lake and, surprise!).  But the largest category of non-predatory birds found was the turkey – a land-roving bird.
  7. Dense packing.  The bones were tightly packed together, and even insect parts, including wings and antennae, were found in the eye sockets of the skulls.  Finding any connected parts of an animal, even an insect, was extremely rare.  “In addition,” Weston writes, “the bones were in an entangled mass, closely pressed together, and interlocked in all possible ways.”  Most showed breakage and grooves or depressions.  Presumably bubbles in the tar agitated the fossils, but again, that is not observed happening today.
  8. Waterlogged wood.  Stumps of water-saturated wood were found in some pits.  Bones were found adjacent to “uprooted stumps or torn branches that were heavy with water.”  An early excavator said, “The disposition of this brush and associated material as well as markings on the brush itself, indicate that this stuff was all washed in.”

These facts indicate that something is seriously wrong with the entrapment story being fed to the public at the George C. Page Museum at the site.  Taken together, the observations seem to point to a catastrophe of some sort.  Weston has a version: he believes carnivores were concentrated on hilltops as flood waters were rising, and were the last to drown.  Their bones, last to settle to the bottom, were disarticulated and concentrated by currents and washed into depressions where gas and oil seeps had formed from underwater blowholes.
    Whether or not you find this scenario more plausible than the entrapment story, why shouldn’t the public be told all the facts, including the many problems with the standard model?  This case fits the evolutionists’ propaganda strategy we see so often.  They start by assuming evolution and long ages, and then weave a just-so story around the facts that caters to the imaginary idea of long periods of slow, gradual evolution.  Uncomfortable facts are swept under the rug or dismissed with just-so subplots.
    The last exhibit at the Page Museum is especially grievous.  A large wall mural portrays the grand drama of cosmic evolution, starting with a presumed origin of life from random chemicals at the top, down through millions of years of biological evolution, a recorded voice reciting the whole glittering generality to the enraptured visitors.  They look and listen in reverence as more and more complex life emerges, until finally, an astronaut at the end of the imaginary timeline leaps out into the cosmos from which he ultimately sprang.  Now for crying out loud, the La Brea story does not even cover millions of years.  Even assuming the Darwin Party’s own time scale, the Pleistocene epoch represents only the last one tenth of one percent of the geologic column.  Yet this is the mythology with which millions of visitors, including a large percentage of public school children on field trips, is indoctrinated, in spite of the facts.  Is there a righteous cause here?
    P.S.  By the way, word has it that the late benefactor, George C. Page, whose largesse paid for the museum, was a creationist.

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Categories: Birds, Fossils, Mammals

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