During the 1800s oil boom, oil prospectors at what is now the La Brea Tar Pits found fossilized bones, mistaking them at first for local animals such as cattle. Today, the La Brea Tar Pits are a museum undergoing a big redesign with a renewed purpose to tell the stories of over three million fossils trapped in the asphalt.
The fossils tell a story of large-scale extinction starting 13,000 years ago, which, ironically, continues to this day thanks largely to petroleum that trapped them.
Dire Wolves of LA
The Tar Pits are in the middle of downtown Los Angeles, but from 50,000 to 8,000 years ago, carnivores like saber-toothed cats and dire wolves got trapped in the death trap trying to feed on other trapped animals, such as giant ground sloths and mammoths. The oil itself dates back 20 million years, created by animals in the distant past. It’s still trapping animals that venture too close today.
But around 13,000 years ago, most of the larger animals went extinct. In fact, two-thirds of all large mammals died off, and it’s unclear why. Animals like native horses, camels, mastodons, and long-horned bison are no longer found in North America. (Who knew camels originated in North America?)
Video by PBS Eons:
Extreme Climate Change
More and more scientists think the extinctions may have been due to extreme climate change, heat, fire, and droughts, much like we’re experiencing now.
Trees reveal a drought not seen since the time of the Vikings.
“Measuring historical moisture patterns by looking at thousands of tree rings, scientists concluded that the West is in a ‘megadrought,’ the likes of which have not been seen in the region since at least 800 A.D., when Vikings sailed the North Atlantic and Mayans built temples in Mexico and Central America,” writes the Mercury News.
Such environmental extremes may be why the Ancient Pueblo People, the Anasazi, disappeared as recently as the 1200s.
A Not-So-New Story From the Tar Pits
Scientists from the La Brea Tar Pits believe this extinction event never stopped but is ongoing. Evidence suggests that ancient humans who started wildfires worsened the extinction event then. Today, wildfires and drought are worsening as we burn over 4,000 times the fossil fuels compared to the 1800s.
“That’s the start of the extinction event we’re in today,” said Lori Bettison-Varga, a geologist and the president and director of the Natural History Museums of Los Angeles County, which oversees the Tar Pits. “That’s the new story the museum is trying to tell.”
A young volunteer studying the bones could possibly be the same person who helps save humans from extinction.
Video by ABC10:
Bones That Speak
Since prehistoric times, the asphalt in the Tar Pits has attracted humans. For example, Native Americans used asphalt to waterproof boats for thousands of years. Later, when geologists realized the bones underneath were ancient, there was another rush, like the California Goldrush, as people came to extract fossils for souvenirs and study.
One of the first, Professor William Denton, was ignored after saying, “the bones spoke to him and his wife” in 1875. But these bones are still speaking, although many remain locked in storage and huge crates.
It will take years to come for scientists to go through the crates of fossils, and each fossil is one never before seen by human eyes. But the story the fossils tell could be quite simple: We simply need to stop burning so much oil, or there will be no one left to study the fossils trapped by it. We must cherish the animals we share the Earth with and leave room for them to prosper.
Related: Return of the Bison Brings Hope and Heals Environment
If not, then one day, a future intelligence could discover our fossils and wonder why we went the way of the dinosaurs for oil, driving on an artificial landscape of asphalt roads, just like in a scene from Love, Death, and Robots.
Oil Prospectors and A Dinosaur Named For Peace
Oil prospectors accidentally discovered fossils at the La Brea Tar Pits. Similarly, the search for oil led a geologist from Tropical Oil Company to Colombia in 1943. Instead of oil, they found a strange large bone and took it to the University of California, Berkeley, not that far from the Tar Pits.
Seventy-five years later, paleontologists could finally visit the location where the fossil was discovered. For years, the area was inaccessible due to civil war, guerrilla warfare and conflict, partially related to oil profits, as wars often are. Finally, a peace accord between the guerrilla fighters and the government meant studying the rare sauropod could continue in Colombia.
“The sauropod’s new name bears witness to the discovery’s peaceful origins: Researchers dubbed it Perijasaurus lapaz after the mountainous region and the Spanish word for peace,'” reported the Washington Post.
Although the dinosaur’s name may suggest peace, the fight for extracting oil in the country rages on. And, of course, this is happening around the world. Ironically, our own species can’t seem to break free from the chokehold of oil, while the message from the animals who went before remains inescapable.
Related: Mammoth Bones in Scientist’s Backyard Suggest Humans in New Mexico 36,000+ Years Ago
Featured image: La Brea Tar Pits via Wikimedia Commons by JERRYE AND ROY KLOTZ MD, (CC BY-SA 3.0)