The Titanic is the new The La Brea Tar Pits

Of dire wolves and billionaires: My ancient historical hot take on The Titan tragedy

Ariel Meadow Stallings
4 min readJun 24, 2023

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Photo courtesy of tarpits.org

Have you ever been to the La Brea Tar Pits? It’s billed as a cool bit of natural history, but it’s actually kind of macabre and horrific.

The short version of the story: there were these tar pits in Ice Age-era California. Animals would get stuck in them, and die.

But tar pits aren’t like quicksand. It’s not like the animals would get stuck and sucked quickly down into the tar. It could take days for animals to die and then months for their bodies to sink.

As explained by The Smithsonian:

Once stuck in a tar seep, animals would eventually sink into the earth. But that’s not the only reason they were deadly, says Earth, describing new research. Once ensnared, animals would linger on the surface for months — often 17 to 20 weeks. Stuck there, they were tempting bait to roaming scavengers.

I took my son to visit the La Brea Tar Pits twice, and both times were upsetting. Let’s start with the horrific family tragedy outside — sculptures depicting a mastodon family, one of the parents sinking into the pit as its baby trumpets from the shore.

We walked the museum, admiring the skulls of all the animals that had died slow, horrific deaths. We learned about all the different kinds of ice age-era creatures trapped by the ooze — mighty mastodons! Enormous bears! Massive sloths!

(Side note: I bought my son a stuffed sloth at the museum store, and there was much debate over whether it should be named Tar Tar Binks.)

And we learned all about how it wasn’t just the mastodons or sloths getting caught in the tar pits. We learned about how one animal would get stuck in the tar, and then the struggling panicked stuck animal would attract predators and scavengers.

The scavengers would approach, curious and hungry.

And then they would get stuck.

That’s part of why there are so many dire wolf skulls at the La Brea Tar Pits: thousands of them died while scavenging trapped or dead animals ensnared in the tar.

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Ariel Meadow Stallings

I'm a Medium product manager, but also a whole-ass person: author, publisher, devotional dancer, Seattleite, mom, and just a human humanning.