Young earth creationists Don Patton, Carl Baugh, and some of their associates and followers have argued that a stone carving on the wall of the Ta Prohm temple in Cambodia was based on a live Stegosaurus dinosaur seen by the artist. There are problems with this interpretation, even aside from extensive evidence that humans did not appear on earth until at least 60 million years after non-avian dinosaurs* went extinct. First, the image in question differs in several significant ways from actual stegosaurs. Second, the main evidence for the Stegosaurus interpretation consists of a row of supposed plates along the back of the carving animal. There are a number of alternate explanations, including the possibility that they merely represent background vegetation or decorative flourishes, similar to many others on and around other carvings on the temple. The lobes may also represent exaggerated dorsal spines of a chameleon or other lizard. When all features and factors are considered, the carving is at least as compatible with a rhinoceros or spine-bearing lizard as a stegosaur. Moreover, even if it represents a stegosaur, the carving could have been based on fossil remains rather than the artist seeing a live stegosaur.
* To clarify a couple issues of terminology before proceeding: Where not qualified elsewhere, I mean “dinosaur” in the traditional sense, that is to say, non-avian dinosaurs. Technically, even today humans live with a large group of dinosaurs, called birds. Virtually all modern paleontologists regard birds as not only the descendents of dinosaurs, but as actual members of a dinosaur clad (feathered theropods to be more precise). The term “Stegosaurus” refers to a particular dinosaur genus, whereas “stegosaur” or “stegosaurid” refer to the whole group of similar dinosaurs with small heads, back plates or spines, and tail spikes, belonging to the suborder Stegosauria.
|Map of East Asia|
Ta Prohm is the modern name for a temple at Angkor, Cambodia. It was built in the late 1100’s and early 1400’s as a Buddhist monastery. Originally called Rajavihara, it was among many other Buddhist and Hindu temples produced by the Khmer civilization from the eighth through the fourteenth century A.D. The temple was commissioned by self-proclaimed “god-king” Jayavarman VII, one of the most renowned monarchs and builders of the empire. Statues depicting him in Buddha-like poses are found throughout the region. Ta Prohm was built in honor of his mother and dedicated in 1186. The temple’s stele records that it was home to more than 12,500 people, including 18 high priests and 615 dancers, with 80,000 thousands more people in surrounding villages providing various services and supplies. Some question whether these figures may involve some exaggeration, but clearly the temple was an active and impressive complex.
The reign of Jayavarman VII was followed by that Jayavarman VIII, who sought to destroy many Buddhist structures and icons created during the rule of his famous predecessor, and restore Hindu shrines. Ta Prohm did not entirely escape this onslaught. Many temple carvings and sculptures were removed or damaged, although many original carvings and latter additions can still be seen. Indeed, like other temples in the region, Ta Prohm was later expanded and modified until the end of the 13th century. Many of the additions reflect influences of various Buddhist and Hindu sects from India and other regions, with which the temple community had frequent contact.
|Fig. 3. Apparent mammal carving with dorsal additions.
After the fall of the Khmer empire in the 15th century, the Angkor temples were largely abandoned and neglected, until becoming the focus of historical research and restoration efforts during the last two centuries. Recently the temples became widely known after being featured in the 2001 Lara Croft movie Tomb Raider. Unlike many heavily restored Angkor temples, Ta Prohm was left largely in its natural state. Dense vegetation, including large trees with vine-like branches and massive roots, cover and entangle many of the ruins, making it a popular destination for photographers and tourists. However, in the last several years efforts have been made to clear some of the brush, build viewing and photography decks, and otherwise accommodate tourist traffic in ways that may detract from the natural beauty of the site.
Among the images carved into the temple walls as bas-relief sculptures are many religious and mythical figures, as well a variety of animals. Some of the animals can be identified to a group level (such as water birds, parrots, deer, and monkeys) whereas others are more ambiguous, such as the image in question. This carving was first brought to widespread attention in two books by Claude Jacques and Michael Freeman (1997, 1999), who remarked that one of the carvings at the temple complex “bears a striking resemblance to a stegosaurus (1997, p. 213).
|Fig. 4. Cameaelo melleri (Meller’s Chameleon)|
In recent years, Don Patton, Carl Baugh, Dennis Swift, and a few other young-earth creationists have claimed that the carving demonstrates that dinosaurs lived alongside humans less than a thousand years ago. They further see the carving as support for their young-earth creationist position in general, which holds that the earth and all life forms were created only several thousand years ago. Patton and Swift personally visited the temple site in early 2006, and Patton strongly promotes the stegosaur interpretation on his Bible.ca website (Patton, 2006), where he declares, “One of the animals enclosed in these circles is a stegosaurus.” He calls the evidence “amazing.” At his Creationevidence.com website, Carl Baugh sells replicas of the carving, which he matter-of-factly calls a Stegosaurus. He also has an outdoor display devoted to the find at his little “Creation Evidence Museum” in Texas, where the stegosaur conclusion is strongly encouraged. Kyle Butt and Eric Lyons (2008) largely repeat and elaborate on Patton’s claims, including the supposedly compelling point that middle school students readily identify the carving as a Stegosaurus. These promotions have prompted discussions on various blogs and websites devoted to creation-evolution issues, cryptozoology, and related topics (Burns, 2010; Meyers, 2009; Dunning, 2010), with many people weighing in with their assessments and interpretations.
Even the major creationist organization “Answers in Genesis,” which is usually more cautious about alleged “out of order” artifacts and fossils, strongly encourages the stegosaur interpretation in an article at its website (Cole, 2007). Although conceding that the carving might be a forgery, Cole implies that if it’s genuine, it probably depicts a recently living stegosaur–without considering that the lobes might be merely background decorations, or exploring alternate explanations and candidates. Most other large creationist groups such as ICR (2010), have said little one way or the other on the matter, while most old-earth creationists, serious cryptozoologists (e.g. Loren, 2006), and mainstream authors who joined the fray have pointed to a number of problems with the stegosaur interpretation and offered alternate explanations (Konkus, 2010; Nelstead, 2009; Novella, 2008). The current article includes and expands on observations by these and other commentators, along with some additional evidence and considerations.
|Fig. 4b. Acanthosaura armata
“Mountain Horned lizard”
|Fig. 5. Stegosaurus reconstruction|
Some have suggested the possibility that the “Stegosaurus” may have been carved or altered by a modern hoaxer. In support of this, some critics point out the lighter appearance of the image in question compared to surrounding carvings (Fig. 3). However, the lightness could be due to visitors cleaning it or making a mold. Patton (2008) cites evidence of authenticity such as remnants of the original patina, but some patina could remain if only parts of the carving had been altered. Also, the patina could have been artificially mimicked by a clever hoaxer, or acquired in a relatively short span of time after alteration. Some also suggest the edges of the lobes on the “stegosaur” look a little more angular or sharp than nearby ones, and perhaps have been altered. Patton maintains that the similar topographic relief of the “stegosaurus” carving means it could not have been carved, but while this might be true of a whole-scale carving, it would not necessarily apply to selective modifications. Thus, more study would be needed to completely rule out a forgery or mischievous alteration. However, even if we stipulate that the carving is probably genuine, the stegosaur interpretation is far from compelling, for a number of reasons.
The main features fostering the impression that the creature is or could be a stegosaur are the lobes along the back. Although they superficially resemble stegosaur plates, they also show a number of differences. Stegosaurs had many more plates, evidently arranged in a staggered double row rather than a single row. They also are more angular and pointed at the top than the lobes in the carving, and are typically much larger over the animal’s mid-section than toward its tail or neck.
Granted, a carver might present only simplified or stylized features, accounting for these differences, but in view of them, it is worth considering alternate explanations. First, the lobes may represent exaggerated spines or ridges of chameleons or other lizards (Fig 4). One interesting lizard native to Cambodia and other parts of East Asia is the Mountain Horned Lizard (also called the Horned Dragon) not only has dorsal spines, but has “horns” projecting from the back of the head. These seem to correspond well with similar projections on the head of the “stegosaur” carving, although the large number of thin spines along the back would not.
|Fig. 6. Bird carving with lobes around its body
|Fig. 7. Sumatran rhinos in Cincinnati Zoo.
|Fig. 8. Mindoro Dwarf Buffalo (Tamaraw)
Second, the lobes may be merely stylized leaves or purely decorative features. Some have noted that they appear to be well delineated from the body, further suggesting that they were not intended to be parts of it. The vegetation or decorative flourish interpretation is especially plausible in view of the many similar features adoring the margins and borders of many other temple carvings–sometimes occurring right against the outline of a creature–without anyone assuming they are parts of its body. For example, in the carving immediately above the supposed stegosaur (Fig. 3), some prominent lobes occur along the back of the quadruped mammal depicted there (sometimes identified as a water buffalo). Likewise, upon close inspection one can see that an apparent swan or goose in another nearby carving (Fig. 6) shows lobes around the body, as well as on the surrounding frames, that look virtually identical to the alleged back plates on the “stegosaur.” Unless one wants to conclude that buffalo and water birds living in Cambodia at the time had bony plates sticking out of their bodies, strong caution should be used before jumping to conclusions about the lobes in the carving in question.
Most other aspects of the creature are not very stegosaur like, and are actually more compatible with a rhinoceros or chameleon. Specifically, stegosaurs (Fig. 5) had tiny heads with pointed, narrow snouts, and rather long, tapering necks–nothing like large head, wide snout, and short neck seen in the carving. Even more problematic, the carving does not show the menacing tail spikes which stegosaurs possessed. These are among the most unique and stunning features of this dinosaur group, and not something an artist would easily overlook. The carving also shows front and hind legs of similar size, even though stegosaurs had rear legs far larger than the front legs. Moreover, the back of the head of the carved creature shows significant projections. No horns, ears, or other projections would be expected on a stegosaur head, but could readily represent ears on a rhino (Figs. 7 & 9), or the folds or furrows of a chameleon neck frill (Fig 4a), or as noted earlier, the spikes on the head of a horned lizard (Fig. 4b). It seems unlikely that a carver familiar with living stegosaurs would neglect striking features such as long tail spikes, but add prominent features on the head that did not exist. If one argues that the image might be so stylized that this is possible, then no anatomic features of the creature (or around it) can be trusted to be even reasonably accurate. Indeed, as one blogger (Rogue, 2009) observed, if the carving is really supposed to be a Stegosaurus, it gets things remarkably wrong at both ends.
|Now this end is called the Thagomizer…
after the late Thag Simmons
Speaking of which, although decades ago sauropods and other dinosaurs were commonly depicted with their tails on the ground, modern reconstructions based on more thorough skeletal and footprint analyses show the tails held well above the ground, with much less downward arc than is seen in the carving. In comparison, chameleons are often seen posed with their backs acutely arched and their tails draping low, very similar to the carving. Indeed, although the heads of other animals (like a rhino) might fit the carving far better than a stegosaur, and slightly better than a chameleon, the relatively large tail of a chameleon may be a point in its favor.
In any case, considering the strong possibility that the lobes along the back are not meant to be part of the animal, other commentators have suggested additional candidates, such as an Asian Water Buffalo or Mindoro Dwarf Buffalo (Fig. 8). Although the general head shape seems slightly more rhino than buffalo-like, the tapering shape of the head projections on the carving might fit buffalo horns slightly better than rhino ears (Fig. 11). Still others have proposed a hippopotamus or wild boar. Both have low slung heads similar to the carving, and hippos have well rounded backs. However, but no living or recent hippo species are known from East Asia, and most adult boars have tusks protruding from their snouts–which probably would not be overlooked or omitted by an artist.
|Carving head compared to baby Asian Rhino|
Some have objected to the rhino interpretation based on the apparent lack of a nose horn on the carving. However, others note that if one looks closely a hint of a nose horn can be detected (and perhaps was originally clearer, before centuries of weathering). Also, the Borneo Rhino (also called the Sumatran Rhino), whose range formerly included much of east Asia, has a much smaller horn than other species. In females and young juveniles the nose horn ranges from very small to virtually absent (Fig. 7). The bodies and tails of rhinos would match the carving less well, but again, the head is considerably more rhino-like than stegosaur-like. Indeed, general shape and collective features of the head seem to match a rhinoceros better than any other animal. Considering the evidence that the back lobes my be merely decorative additions, on balance it appears that if the carving represents any real creature, a rhinoceros or chameleon seem like more plausible candidates than a recently living stegosaur.
Another consideration not discussed by most stegosaur proponents is that even if the artist meant to depict a stegosaur, he didn’t necessarily observe a live one. It’s possible that the carving was based on a fossil stegosaur. Stegosaurids are known several areas of the world, including North America, Europe, Africa and East Asia. Although fossil finds are not frequent or plentiful in heavily vegetated areas like Cambodia, several stegosaur genera have been reported from the Jurassic of China (which once shared its southern boarder with the Khmer Empire). These include Huayangosaurus, Tuojiangosaurus, Chungkingosaurus, Chialingosaurus, and Wuerhosaurus. Although many of the skeletons are incomplete, allowing some variations in the details of reconstructions, like other stegosaurs they evidently all had small heads, relatively long necks, back plates and/or spines, and sharp spikes on the tail. Moreover, as a blogger astutely pointed out, a massive amount of stones must have been quarried for Ta Prohm and the many other temples and stone structures in the region, providing ample opportunities for fossil discoveries. As another blogger commented, it would not be necessary for the fossils to be located in Cambodia itself or even nearby areas. Many ancient peoples traveled quite widely at times, and recounted their adventures and discoveries upon their return.
If the carving was inspired by a fossil find, it would not be the first such occurence. Although the point is often ignored or minimized by creationist proponents of living and recent dinosaurs, most archaeologists and historians believe a number of mythical creatures are probably based at least in part on fossil finds by ancient peoples. Often the legendary entities show fossil features combined with those of modern animals (Stefan. 2007; Kuban, 2010a). These include “dragons” (even today some Chinese shops sell dinosaur and pterosaur teeth and claws as “dragon bones”), Cyclops (after skulls of mammoths or other elephantoids), the Griffin (likely inspired by beak-jawed Protoceratops skulls), and Thunderbirds (a legend of Native Americans possibly based on fossilized pterosaur or “terror bird” remains and/or dinosaur tracks–the latter being relatively common in the western U.S.). (Kuban, 2010b).
|Fig. 11. Temple pillar showing the “stegosaur”
carving and a strange image at the bottom
Credit: Colin Burns
|Fig. 10. The God Varuna on his mount Makara, c. 1675-1700
Yet another possibility is that the animal is largely or imaginative or religiously symbolic. Just because some carvings on the temple depict real creatures does not mean that all do. Hindu lore and many temple carvings represent entities featuring combinations of different animals and deities. Some of these could have been the inspiration or basis for the “stegosaur” carving. For example, a Hindu creature named Makara (Fig. 10) is often depicted with dorsal projections, being ridden by a four-armed deity named Varuna or Varundva. While some young earth creationists might suggest that the former creature also represents a dinosaur, most scholars consider it merely mythical or symbolic, perhaps based loosely on local animals (in some renditions, it looks somewhat lizard or crocodile like, in others, more dog or wolf like). Among the more fanciful and strange depictions at Ta Prohm is a carving at the bottom of the same pillar as the “stegosaur” (Fig. 11), which resembles a cat or dog-like creature standing on its hind legs, with one foreleg holding a torch and the other resembling a bush or wing, yet with a head like a man or monkey, sporting a puffy moustache, necklace, and judges wig, So far Patton has not enlightened us on what living creature served as the model for this carving.
Patton tries to use a series of stegosaur drawings by college art students (and a cartoonish picture frame) to argue that the temple carver almost certainly saw a live stegosaur, since some of the students’ drawings showed missing tail spikes, large heads, or other inaccuracies. There are several problems with Patton’s analogy and conclusions.
|Fig. 12. Some of the students’ drawings|
1. Patton says he chose the best drawings to show; however, some look so childish or fanciful (Fig. 12) that if they were the best, I’d hate to see the worst (perhaps some of the students should consider other majors). Obviously, whoever drew the smiling, upright dinosaur was just being silly.
2. Even most of the students’ drawings show tail spikes, as well as better body/head proportions for a stegosaur than the temple carving.
3. Unlike the temple carving, none of the drawings shows ears or horn-like head projections.
4. Patton ignores the strong possibility that the back lobes might be merely decorations or background vegetation rather than part of the animal’s body.
5. Patton neglects the possibility that even if the image depicts a stegosaur, it could be based on fossils rather than a live stegosaur.
Patton asks, “Does anything other than an anatomically correct portrayal, prove that the artist never saw a good representation of what was being portrayed?” More to the point, he should ask whether an anatomically problematic carving proves that the artist saw a live stegosaur, and clearly it does not. Indeed, in one sense Patton’s exercise undermines his own argument. After all, if students can produce semi-accurate depictions of a stegosaur without actually seeing a live one (just a skeleton or someone else’s depiction based on a skeleton) so could a Cambodian artist.
Patton further asks, “How, then, should we assess the assertion that the Cambodian sculptor never saw a Stegosaurs because his depiction is imperfect (though better than the art students)? The students must have seen a Stegosaurs but the Cambodian sculptor did not??? … Prejudice has the power to makes us look awfully ridiculous.” First, not all critics insist the artist could not have seen a live dinosaur (some concede it is a remote possibility), but most rightly feel the burden of proof is on those making the extreme claim of a recently living stegosaur, not on others to disprove it (viable alternate explanations alone undermine such claims). Second, Patton again seems to forget that none of the students has ever seen a live stegosaur. Indeed, even the most realistic renderings of stegosaurs by paleo-artists today are not based on live dinosaurs, but fossil skeletons. And again, apparently Patton fails to consider that the lobes along the back of the carving animal may not even be part of its body. So, his logic is more flawed than those he ridicules.
Yet another consideration is the lack of any written records or other reliable corroborating evidence that live stegosaurs were seen in Cambodia only several hundred years ago. Are we to suppose that such massive and stunning creatures were traipsing around a heavily populated area (which was one of the most civilized and advanced cultures of its day), or even seen in areas they visited or explored, without any of them (and many were literate) clearly describing them? Granted, Patton, Baugh, and Swift also promote alleged human and dinosaur depictions on stones or statures from other areas, such as the so-called “Ica Stones” from Peru (which supposedly even show humans riding pterodactyls), and figurines from Acámbaro, Mexico. However, both collections are considered hoaxes by virtually all serious archaeologists (Blanton, 1999; Ross, 2007; Kuban 2008), and are rejected or questioned even by many creationists.
Last, Patton and associates seem to assume without basis that if stegosaurs survived into historic times, it would represent stupendous anti-evolutionary evidence. Quite the contrary, all it would mean is that a member of a dinosaur group thought to have gone extinct survived considerably longer than originally thought. While it would be a wonderful find, it would no more refute conventional geology than did the Ginkgo, Dawn Redwood, or coelacanth. What young earth creationists need to refute evolution is not this situation, but essentially the opposite: modern creatures known only from recent epochs (such as humans, deer, dogs, cats, whales, bears, elephants, horses, etc) appearing far earlier than any reasonable evolutionary model allows–such as the early Mesozoic, or anywhere in the Paleozoic. By young earth models we should find countless thousands if not millions of well documented examples like this, but not one well verified one exists. Smaller creationist groups and individuals who have promoted the stegosaur claims or similar ones uncritically–assuming that if an object resembles a prehistoric animal, that’s what it must be–would do well to reexamine their approach, and consider whether it is advancing creationist credibility, or the opposite.
The alleged stegosaur carving on a Cambodian temple is at least as plausibly interpreted as a rhinoceros or chameleon. Even if it represented a stegosaur, it could be based on fossil material rather a live stegosaur. Those insisting that the carver saw a recently living stegosaur have failed to adequately consider alternate explanations. The temple carving does not provide compelling or convincing evidence that humans and non-avian dinosaurs were contemporaries. As the adage goes, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” and in this case, the evidence falls far short.
I wish to thank Geno Castagnoli, Sharon MacKanzie, and Ron Hastings for proofreading drafts of this article and offering helpful comments and corrections.
Anitei, Stefan. 2007. “Where do Mythical Creatures Come From?” Softpedia website article at: http://news.softpedia.com/news/Where-do-Mythical-Creatures-Come-From-55502.shtml
Blanton, John. 1999. “The Acambaro dinosaurs”. The Newsletter of The North Texas Skeptics, Volume 13, Number 10. http://www.ntskeptics.org/1999/1999october/october1999.htm.
Also see the Wikipedia article on the Acambaro figurines at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ac%C3%A1mbaro_figures
Burns, Colin and Tracy. 2010. “Stegosaurus, Rhinoceros or Hoax? Dinosaur hunting at Ta Phrom” Travel website and blog at:
Butt, Kyle, and Eric Lyons. 2008. “Physical Evidence for the Coexistence of Dinosaurs and Humans [Part I]” Reason & Revelation, 28:17-23 Available as web article at:
Cole, Kenneth. 2007. “Evidence of Dinosaurs at Angkor.” AIG Website article at: http://www.answersingenesis.org/articles/2007/01/15/evidence-dinosaurs-angkor
Coleman Loren. 2006. “Stegosaur in Cambodia?” Cryptomungo.com website postings (with numerous replies) at: http://www.cryptomundo.com/cryptozoo-news/dino-cambodia/
Dunning, Brian. 2010. “Dinosaurs Among Us” Skeptoid #207, Web article at: http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4207
Freeman, Michael and Jacques, Claude. 1997. Angkor Cities and Temples. River Books, Bangkok.
Freeman, Michael and Jacques, Claude. 1999. Ancient Angkor. River Books, Bangkok.
ICR (Insittute for Creation Reasearch). “Men and Doinsaurs Coexisted.” Anonymous website article at: http://www.icr.org/men-dinosaurs/
Oddly, the article features a large uncaptioned photo of the carving at the top of the page, but does not discuss or specifically mention the carving anywhere in the article.
Kuban, Glen. 2010a. “Living Pterosaurs?” Web article at: http://paleo.cc/paluxy/livptero.htm
Kuban, Glen. 2010b. “Dinosaurs in Ancient Art” Web article at: http://paleo.cc/ce/dino-art.htm
Kuban, Glen. 1994. “Overview of Dinosaur Tracking” Web article at: http://paleo.cc/paluxy/ovrdino.htm
Meyers, Stephen. 2008. “Don Patton: Stegosuarus at Ta Prohm Temple in Cambodia?” Web article at: http://www.bibleandscience.com/otherviews/Don%20Patton.htm
Konkus, 2010. The Stegosaurus Carving That Isn’t. Website article at: http://www.stupiddinosaurlies.org/the-stegosaurus-carving-that-isn-t
Nelstead, Kevin. 2009. “Stegosaurus in Cambodian temple?” blog discussion at GeoChristian web site.
Novella, Steven. 2008. “Ancient Cambodian Stegosaurus?” Blog article at: http://theness.com/neurologicablog/?p=196
Patton, Don. 2006. “Dinosaurs in ancient Cambodian temple: Amazing evidence that dinosaurs and humans coexisted.” Website article at: http://www.bible.ca/tracks/tracks-cambodia.htm
Rogue06 (blog ID). 2009. “Carving of a Cambodian Stegosaurus?” Blog article at: http://www.theologyweb.com/campus/showthread.php?134856-Carving-of-a-Cambodian-Stegosaurus
Ross, Sara. 2007. “The Ica Stones and Dr. Javier Cabrera” Web article at: http://pseudoarchaeology.org/b03-ross.html
Swift, Dennis. 2010. “Ancient Dinosaur Depictions.” Website article at: http://www.genesispark.com/genpark/ancient/ancient.htm
Wikipedia article (2010) at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ta_Prohm