Long before the palaeontological significance of the La Brea tar pits was realised, Indians used the asphalt they provided for waterproofing and as an adhesive. After the arrival of settlers the asphalt was used for commercial purposes. Bones had been found in the tar pits, but these were thought to have belonged to cattle. In 1877, Professor William Denton identified a tooth from La Brea, and realised that the pits held something more than just cattle. However, it was not until W. W. Orcutt rediscovered the site and alerted Professor John C. Merriam, of the University of California, that the palaeontological significance of the tar pits was recognised. Excavations took place between 1906 and 1915, and around 2 million specimens were collected.

The La Brea fossils now represent one of the largest and best documented collections, held at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, the University of California Museum of Paleontology and the George C. Page Museum, which is a part of the Los Angeles Museum devoted to the tar pits.

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