Lessons from the La Brea Tar Pits

By Wayne Jackson

More than two hundred years ago, the Spanish explorer Gaspar de Portola wrote about the “muchos pantamos de brea,” i.e., the “extensive bogs of tar,” that he observed in what is now the Los Angeles area of southern California. Just seven miles west of the Los Angeles Civic Center, lies one of the richest fossil deposits in the world. It is now known as Rancho La Brea, or more commonly, the La Brea Tar Pits.

The locale is characterized by a depression that appears to have accommodated a natural water outlet for a significant area to the east. Apparently, masses of floating carcasses were piled up in this region. In this case, however, due to the unusual conditions of seeping oil from beneath the ground surface, millions of these bones have been preserved. Even the surrounding area gives evidence of decayed bones, the sands of the region being very calcareous.

In this relatively small area, more than one hundred excavations have been done in the past century. Altogether, these have yielded hundreds of species of plants and animals. These discoveries generate a special interest for creationists, because they lend considerable support to the concept of catastrophism. This is the view that the fossil record in general is explained better in terms of the universal flood, recorded in Genesis 6-8, than it is by means of the evolutionary ideology known as uniformitarianism. Uniformitarianism is the notion that the fossil record was laid down, ever so gradually, over millions of years.

The Discoveries

A summary of some of the fossil types extracted from the tar pits is helpful in considering the evidence. A great variety of both flora and fauna have been exhumed—all the way from the huge imperial mammoth (about five tons in weight and thirteen feet tall) to tiny creatures, microscopic in size.

Consider the following:

  1. In excess of three million fossils, representing more than 565 different species have been discovered. Some species, especially the larger flesh-eating creatures, are represented by tens of thousands of bones and teeth. Last year, in just a two-month period, one thousand new specimens were discovered.
  2. There have been more than one hundred human artifacts found in the bog, including the fractured skull of a young woman, estimated to be about twenty to twenty-five years of age. Several of the skull’s teeth were missing and the remainder were well worn, indicating a rough grain diet. Hide scrapers, spear tips, and tools made of elk horn from animals that lived in the southern San Joaquin Valley are among the relics.
  3. Currently, sloths live in Central and South America; they are small, tree-dwelling animals that move about slowly and clumsily (on the ground). The ancient ground sloth (now extinct), as known from La Brea, stood a bit over six feet tall and weighed some 3,500 pounds. Three species are represented at La Brea.
  4. Two species of camels have been found in La Brea. One of these rose more than seven feet tall at the shoulders.
  5. Two species of bison are fossilized in the La Brea pits; both of these were larger than their modern descendants. One skeleton mounted in the Los Angeles County Museum measures more than seven feet tall at the highest shoulder point.
  6. Representatives of the dog family are abundant at La Brea. More than 3,600 skeletons of the dire wolf, for example, have been recovered.
  7. Fossils of the American lion have been discovered as well (now long extinct). The male American lion was some twenty-five percent larger than today’s African lion. Too, fossils of the saber-toothed cat, about the size of today’s African lion, have been found at La Brea. Some two thousand samples have been extracted from the pits.
  8. More than one hundred thousand bird specimens, representing 135 species (nineteen of which are extinct) have been exhumed from the pits. This represents the largest collection of bird fossils in the world.

The discoveries at Rancho La Brea have been remarkable indeed. They have provided us with a museum of ancient life forms that go back for thousands of years.

According to the evolutionary scientists who “interpret” the data (and make no mistake about it, “interpretation” is the key word), the La Brea record goes back at least forty thousand years. Those who respect the testimony of the Scriptures would not agree with this protracted chronology. (Jackson 2003; see also The Age of the Earth). The question is, therefore: to what sort of conclusions does this fossil evidence point—evolutionary gradualism or biblical catastrophism?

Some Conclusions

Consider the following factors in evaluating the evidence from the La Brea pits:

(1) It is commonly alleged that the animal victims of the La Brea pits wandered into the sticky area a few at a time. These creatures became fixed in the tar and were unable to extract themselves. This procedure was repeated countless times over the centuries until the current effect resulted.

But this theory does not account for the true facts. First of all, it is conceded by virtually every fossil expert that fossilization requires rapid burial. Ordinarily a dead animal is consumed by scavengers or it decays into oblivion. In fact, the major book dealing with the La Brea fossils, published by the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, states:

A prerequisite for the preservation of bones, shells, and plants is rapid burial. For this reason, most fossils are found in sediments that accumulated in water (the deposits of ancient rivers, lakes, or oceans) where rapid burial can occur. The Rancho La Brea fossils appear to have been preserved by a unique combination of rapid sedimentation and asphalt impregnation (Harris 1985, 12; emphasis added).

Note that concession: the La Brea fossils “appear to have been preserved by a unique combination of rapid sedimentation and asphalt impregnation.” That is much more consistent with a catastrophic explanation than it is with a uniformitarian presumption.

(2) While it is doubtless true that some animals wandered into the slime pools and were trapped, the evidence indicates that the great majority of the victims suffered a violent death. Bones are broken and thrown together in the wildest fashion possible. There are mountains of crushed bone fragments. Animals are contorted and mixed together in a fantastic array.

The chance and gradual trapping of animals simply cannot account for this phenomenon. There are too many bones, tightly packed together, for gradualism to be the logical explanation.

In fact, note these quotations from some of the authorities who have worked at this site removing the remains. Harris and Jefferson wrote: “Reconstruction of fossil animals from Rancho La Brea is complicated by the fact that the individual skeletons of different species are jumbled together” (19).

In one area, for example, in a mass of remains “comprising less than four cubic yards, a careful count indicated the presence of more than 50 heads of the dire wolf, at least 30 skulls of the saber-tooth cat, and numerous remains of bison, horse, sloth, coyote, birds, and other forms” (Stock 1953, 23). Photos of the various excavation sites reveal that this is a mass grave of jammed-together victims.

(3) According to the theory of evolution, nature is endowed with marvelous and mysterious mechanisms for the creation and proliferation of living organisms. Supposedly, over the past two to three billion years, new living forms have been exploding on the panoramic scene of history. If that view were true, one would expect a gradual sparseness of fossils the further back he explores the geologic “biography.”

But the La Brea evidence reminds us again of the fact that many creatures that once roamed our land now are gone forever. The geologic narrative exclaims, “Fewer and fewer!”—not “More and more.” The camel, the mammoth, the mastodon, the saber-tooth cat, the long-horned bison, the ground sloth, etc., all have perished. The fossil “library” is one of millions of missing “volumes.” Some evolutionists admit that of all the creatures that have ever lived on earth, some ninety-eight percent now are extinct! (Howard and Rifkin 1977, 21).

(4) Evolutionary theory argues that by means of natural selection (the struggle in nature), animals that are more fit survive and the weaker creatures are eliminated. Ideally, then, species become hardier across the millennia. This, however, is not what the geologic evidence reflects, and La Brea is a perfect example of this situation.

The data cited above, with reference to the size of the La Brea animals, show that the plants and animals of the ancient past are consistently larger and more vigorous than their modern counterparts. The record is clear: degeneration, not regeneration, is the name of the game in the history of living organisms.

(5) Finally, there is that elusive matter of the “missing link.” Society is constantly bombarded with news items about its possible discovery. It is not that there is a missing link; rather, it’s a matter of missing links—all of them, between the major groups of earth’s animals.

The existence of distinct gaps is a reality among the living creatures of today’s world, and it is no less true of fossil history. Charles Darwin was aware of this problem and confessed that this is “the most serious objection which can be urged against the theory [of evolution]” (1859, 313). The late Dr. George G. Simpson of Harvard conceded that there is a “regular absence of transitional forms” in the fossil record, and that such is a “universal phenomenon” among both plants and animals (1944, 107).

The hardcore fact of the matter is this: there are no provable transitions—none at all. Evolutionary geology is “gap-ology.”

If the story of evolution is true, there should be somewhere in the earth’s strata a finely-graduated chain of evidence, with thousands of intermediate links between the major kinds of organisms. In the various museums of the world there now are on display millions of fossil samples representing a quarter of a million different species. And yet the evolutionary chain still has the coveted links missing.

The La Brea evidence, with its three million specimens, affords an excellent opportunity for the exhibition of at least a few organisms that are in-betweens—one sort of creature on the way to becoming something else.

But the truth is this: not one fragment of indisputable evidence has been found. This is a devastating and horrible disappointment to evolutionists, though one that is rarely mentioned. I have examined the leading works on the La Brea evidence—those of Harris and Jefferson, and that of Chester Stock—and the word “link” is not to be found in the respective indexes of these volumes.

To a fair-minded person, therefore, the conclusion is clear: the La Brea evidence points away from the evolutionary scenario and its presuppositions (e.g., gradualism) and supports the concept of creationism and the accompanying catastrophic nature of the biblical flood.

For more information on the La Brea Tarpits, visit the George C. Page Museum website.

  • Darwin, Charles. 1859. The Origin of Species. London, England: A. L. Burt Co.
  • Harris, John M. and George T. Jefferson. 1985. Treasures of the Tar Pits. Los Angeles, CA: Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.
  • Howard, Ted and Jeremy Rifkin. 1977. Who Should Play God? New York, NY: Dell Publishing Co.
  • Jackson, Wayne. 2003. Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth. Stockton, CA: Christian Courier Publications.
  • Simpson, George Gaylord. 1944. Tempo and Mode in Evolution. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.
  • Stock, Chester. 1953. Rancho La Brea – A Record of Pleistocene Life in California. Los Angeles, CA: Los Angeles County Museum.
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About the Author

Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.