Stuck in a tar pit

The June 2013  issue of Acts & Facts magazine from the Institute for Creation Research has a two-page article on the fossils of the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles. “The La Brea Tar Pits Mystery” was written by Dr. John Morris, president of ICR, and Dr. Timothy Clarey, ICR’s new staff geologist.

The article correctly states that some paleontologists have moved away from the simple “animals got stuck in the tar when they stopped for a drink of water” interpretation of the La Brea tar pits. It appears that at least some of the fossils were washed downstream from the nearby Santa Monica Mountains and became trapped in the tar. Morris and Clarey make an unjustified extrapolation from this, and claim that all of the fossils must have been transported to the La Brea site from elsewhere.

Morris and Clarey believe that the La Brea Tar Pits and their enclosing sediments were formed after Noah’s flood. In their flood geology model, Noah’s flood deposited the bulk of Earth’s rock record, but most deposits that geologists would consider to be of Quaternary age (i.e. the Ice Ages) were deposited in a period of a few hundred years after Noah’s flood. This is sometimes referred to as “residual catastrophism.” Morris and Clarey describe the formation of the La Brea fossil deposits as follows:

Large flooding events (sometime after the Great Flood) could have swept the animals into the tar pit openings and deposited the bones in tight, jumbled masses. Biblical scientists have reinterpreted the fossil deposits as a consequence of closely spaced, catastrophic flood events that likely occurred in the waning of the post-Flood Ice Age. The immediate post-Flood years were likely chaotic and more geologically active than today as the earth’s surface recovered from the catastrophic activity of the Flood.

There are a number of problems with the residual catastrophism model as it relates to La Brea. Here are just a few:

  • Soil formation — Soils do not form overnight, and plants need soil. The La Brea flora comes from mature forest ecosystems, and the large herbivores were dependent on abundant vegetation. In the YEC residual catastrophism scenario, soil would have had to form very rapidly, but this process would have been impeded either by high rates of erosion or high rates of deposition.
  • Ecological succession — This is related to the problem of soil formation. Ecological succession is the process of development of an ecosystem over time. If one started with bare rock or sediment after the flood, there would have had to have been a succession of communities that inhabited the area over time, starting with pioneer species that could live on the barren surface, such as lichens, mosses, and insects. Over time there might have been communities dominated by grasses, brush, and eventually a variety of forest types. In the YEC scenario, this would have had to occur very quickly, leading up to mature flora capable of supporting the animal community. Post-flood residual catastrophism suffers from the same problem as the rest of YEC geology: too many events, too little time.
  • Migration — The mammal and bird fossils of La Brea would have had to migrate from Ararat (in modern-day Turkey) and become well-established in the Los Angeles area in a very short time. This is part of the broader biogeographical problem of YEC — kangaroos all migrated to Australia (exactly where kangaroo fossils were deposited by the flood) and didn’t leave any stragglers behind, African animals all migrated to Africa, western North American animals (again, as evidenced in the fossil record) all knew to migrate to western North America, and so forth.
  • Sedimentation — All of this migration and fossilization happened while residual catastrophism was occurring, which in many places meant the deposition of many hundreds of meters of sediments!

In the second-to-last paragraph, the YEC explanation for the La Brea fossils goes from bad to worse:

Uplift of the nearby Santa Monica Mountains and associated earthquakes could have instantly changed river directions and the levels of the land surface, setting local floods in motion. Rapid melting of the glaciers at the end of the Ice Age could have also contributed catastrophic outpourings of floodwaters from the mountains, depositing animal remains in the process. Close-spaced catastrophic events likely continued until Earth reached the relatively stable balance we now experience.

I was quite surprised to see the authors propose that melting of glaciers could have contributed to the formation of the sediments of La Brea. The sediments of these deposits were clearly derived from the nearby Santa Monica Mountains, which in that area presently do not exceed 1500 feet (460 m) in elevation. There is absolutely zero evidence that the Santa Monica Mountains were ever glaciated. A few small glaciers may have existed above 10,000 feet (3050 m) in the San Gabriel and San Bernardino Mountains during the Pleistocene, but it needs to be emphasized that these were small glaciers, and that the sediments of La Brea did not come from these ranges.

The authors conclude with a typical YEC overstatement:

The better explanation for the fossils in the La Brea tar pits matches perfectly with the biblical perspective of recent creation.

The authors have certainly not demonstrated that their residual catastrophism model can explain the La Brea fossil assemblages or their enclosing sediments. Like much of what is presented by the YECs, it is not necessary biblically, nor valid scientifically.

Grace and Peace



In 2012, I reviewed a previous Acts & Facts article by Morris: Young-Earth creationism and the intensity of volcanism. Morris tried to show that the intensity of volcanism has been decreasing ever since the flood, but he did so through choosing eruptions that matched his premise, and then ignoring many thousands of other eruptions.

Also in 2012, I got involved in a discussion about the La Brea Tar Pits with young-Earth creationist Jay Wile on his Proslogion blog. Dr. Wile was advocating for the La Brea Tar Pits being formed during Noah’s flood rather than after the deluge, while I gave a number of reasons why neither the flood explanation nor the post-flood explanation worked. See A Large, Detailed Study Confirms Another Failed Evolutionary Prediction.

12 thoughts on “Stuck in a tar pit

  1. Robert Byers

    This YEC would say the tar pits here are fron about 1800BC or so. Long enough for creatures to have filled the earth after the flood. Long enough for vibrant flora growth.
    The collection of bones I see as no big deal.
    I don’t think water is needed to explain it.
    These creatures are just the left overs fro a great loss soon after the flood. They were equipped to live in a new clinate. After the flood I see a very tropical world that allowed rapid filling up of the earth.
    It all works with biblical boundaries starting with a flood date of about 2400BC.


  2. geochristian

    Robert — If the fossils of La Brea were deposited in the YEC “Ice Age” as the authors assert, then they were deposited in the span of roughly 2250 to 2000 BC, which gives little time for soil development and ecological succession (see The Pleistocene is not in the Bible for a critique of YEC Ice Age teachings). Giving all of this a couple hundred more years to happen (1800 BC as your propose) does not help matters; there are still too many events in too little time.


  3. WebMonk

    This is a great example of what I see so often in YEC-ism: a major problem is shown about a YEC theory, and then someone, with a barely even minimal knowledge of the topic makes an off-the-wall statement how it must of happened so that THEIR idea apparently dodges the problems with the primary YEC theory.

    A million different theories all get generated without the slightest shred of evidence and without consideration for bothersome things like facts. Acts and Facts operates in this way most of the time – it is the VERY rare occurrence that one of their articles actually considers things like facts beyond the two or three they pick out of context for consideration in an article. Then, people who trust groups like ICR propagate the dramatically flawed ideas as “facts”.

    Robert, I’m sure GeoC could fill in a lot more problems if he has time, and maybe such a thing would be a useful educational thing for other readers.

    However, every YEC expert disagrees with you. I’m not sure there needs to be much said beyond that – your own people disagree with your theory. Not just this particular Acts and Facts article, but all the major experts in the YEC geological field – Snelling, Garner, Whitcomb, etc – all disagree with your novel idea.


  4. Robert Byers

    Soil things depend upon what was there after the flood and what happened after that.
    The creatures are probably from 1900 bc to 1700 bc. i think.
    There is time for everything. All that is required is to see the evidence ion the field as coming from episodes in earth events. Soil origins are hard to deal with here and yes YEC wrongly hugs these events too close to the flood.
    yet they are right about biblical timelines.
    Its all about scripture and natures evidence.
    AIG researchers did a good job even if I question minor points.


  5. Robert Byers

    First you say AIG don’t EVER get their facts right and then say they their disagreeing with me should convince me I’m wrong.
    I think AIG gets its facts and interpretations right about 85% of the time and this time a wee bit off the path of accuracy.
    God said there was short timelines. So does the evidence of nature frustrate this or support it.
    The tar pits show a quick killing from some reason. Perhaps the very origin of them did the killing of herds of critters. or some time was needed for accumulation. Imagination is needed to provide insight and then practical evidence.


  6. geochristian


    ICR did not get their science correct in this article. They were quite a bit more than “a wee bit off the path of accuracy.” Their statement about glaciers near the end of the article was completely indefensible, even within the YEC post-flood ice age scenario.

    They get their Bible interpretation wrong as well. The Bible does not say anything about ice ages, so it is quite a stretch for us to try to squeeze ice ages into the Bible. Nor does the Bible say anything about the processes of fossilization, whether during or after Noah’s flood. So how can YEC be so confident in their assertions? Were they there?

    The Bible does not require “short timelines,” as you state. Young-Earth creationists are far more rigid about the exact meaning of “day” in Genesis 1 than Moses was. Moses wrote Genesis 1, and Moses also wrote Psalm 90, in which he wrote, “For a thousand years in your sight are but as yesterday when it is past, or as a watch in the night.” (Ps 90:4 ESV).

    YECs state with confidence that they know what a “day” was in Genesis 1, but Moses makes it clear that God’s days and Earth days are not necessarily the same thing.

    You said, “Its all about scripture and natures evidence.” I write about both scriptural and natural evidence, but I can leave the science out of it and still make a biblical case that Genesis does not require a 6000-year old Earth.


  7. Robert Byers

    The bible only makes, as historic and present day YEC folks see it, timelines.
    So everything must be squeezed in to those lines.
    So then human investigation and thinking fills in details.
    YEC only addresses glaciers and so on because they are used as evidence against Genesis as we see it.
    We take them on. We do quite well.
    I insist everything can be fit into small timelines starting with 6000 years or so since the fall and 4500 sice the flood.
    Somebody is right and somebody is wrong.
    Its up to the crowd who say natures evidence proves Genesis, as we see it, as wrong.
    where’s the evidence and lets at it. how hard can it be.


  8. Jacob

    The Bible and nature are much more grand than the 6000 year timeline some people would force them into. This reading into the Bible an artificial timeline is so limiting, as if the Bible is something like an elaborate train schedule, as if the Bible has little meaning or purpose beyond this timeline.


  9. Pingback: Stuck in a tar pit | Conformable Contacts | Sco...

  10. Robert,

    It seems to me that there is little more than your insistence–the word you used–to back up your claims. You start off with a presupposition, and then refuse to admit any evidence could work against that. I don’t think that is a defensible position.


  11. ashley haworth-roberts

    As I understand it, no dinosaur remains have been found in these tar pits.

    Perhaps this is one reason why the YECs seem forced to suggest that the animals entombed at this location ended up their AFTER Noah’s Flood. “Large flooding events (sometime after the Great Flood) could have swept the animals into the tar pit openings and deposited the bones in tight, jumbled masses. Biblical scientists have reinterpreted the fossil deposits as a consequence of closely spaced, catastrophic flood events that likely occurred in the waning of the post-Flood Ice Age.”

    Thus if you ask “why no dinosaurs” they can shrug this off and suggest that most dinosaurs died in Noah’s Flood and none of the surviving dinosaur ‘era’ animals happened to end up in the tar (which scientists think formed well after dinosaurs really went extinct as I understand it).

    Ironic that this YEC piece of fantasy concerns events in what is now, more or less, Hollywood.


  12. Robert Byers

    Jacob and J.W.Wartick
    Its about the timeline as set out by the bible using the ages of people in the bible.
    So there is a age for Adam and so a timeline.
    A great witness here about origins. Start here and then examine the evidence of nature and hypothesis and conclusions can be made.
    Thats the historical bible believing view and common today by the millions.
    ICR makes a good attempt at drawing hypothesis or conclusions about a heap of bones.
    It fits fine in creationist models about the post flood earth.
    I see it as later then ICR and not so related to the remnants of the impact of the great flood.
    I love the story these bones show. Today we live in a poverty of fauna relative to those days.


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