Is the Creature Carved Into Angkor Temple Wall a ‘Domestic’ Dinosaur?
Mainstream paleontologists say that dinosaurs went extinct 65 million years before the evolution of modern humans. This, however, has not stopped the suggestion that some dinosaurs may have survived as relict populations and have appeared in human artwork. An example of artwork put forward as evidence for this view is a cryptic carving at Ta Prohm, a beautifully overgrown temple in Angkor, the capital city of the former Khmer Empire.
Ta Prohm was built during the reign of the Khmer ruler, Jayavarman VII (1181-1218 AD) as a monastery for Mahayana Buddhism. After the dissolution of the Khmer Empire, the temple was abandoned and reclaimed by the forest until the 19th century, when archaeological excavations at the site of Angkor began. Ta Prohm is most famous today for the fascinating appearance of the giant tree roots which have wound their way through the loosened stones. However, that beautiful view is being carefully watched and maintained these days to ensure that the temple will not deteriorate further or become unsafe for the countless visitors who marvel at the site each year.
The famous 'Tomb Raider' doorway, Ta Prohm Temple, Angkor, Cambodia. (Paul Mannix/ CC BY 2.0 )
Wait, is that a Stegosaurus?
The reason that Ta Prohm has become important for those interested in living populations of dinosaurs is a creature engraved on the walls of the temple that, to some, bears a striking resemblance to a stegosaurus. What makes this creature saurian in appearance are protrusions on its back that look like the dorsal plates of the well-known dinosaur. This is an especially popular claim among young earth creationists who believe that it represents evidence that dinosaurs lived with humans late enough that they were engraved on temple walls.
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The Ta Prohm ‘dinosaur’. (Uwe Schwarzbach/ CC BY NC SA 2.0 )
Could this creature be a dinosaur? To the modern mind, it does resemble a dinosaur. There are, however, several problems with this hypothesis. The first problem is that the alleged plates also resemble artistic flourishes that occur in many other carvings around the temple. They do look a little different from the other flourishes, but the possibility that they are flourishes cannot be ruled out. If the flourishes are removed, the creature bears less resemblance to a dinosaur and more resemblance to something like a rhinoceros.
Without the plate-like carvings above its back, there isn’t really much of a reason to suppose that this creature is a stegosaurus or any other dinosaur for that matter. For one thing, the animal lacks the prominent spikes on the back of the tail that are so characteristic of the dinosaur. Since this is a very distinctive feature of the animal, it seems unlikely that an artist would leave out that detail. Furthermore, on the back of the animal’s head are what appear to be ears or horns which the stegosaurus probably did not have. The creature’s head is also not the right shape.
Reconstruction of what a young stegosaurus looked like. ( CC BY SA 3.0 )
Or Maybe it is a Spike-less Dinosaur?
Supporters of the position that the animal is a stegosaurus have suggested possibilities such as that the animal represents a stegosaurus species that lacked spikes. A particularly interesting suggestion is that the carving is a depiction of a domesticated stegosaurus where the spikes have been removed for safety reasons and the animal has been muzzled. According to this view, the ear-like structures are part of a harness.
To respond specifically to these two possibilities, it is possible that there existed an undiscovered species of stegosaurus that lacked spikes, but this requires us to make extra assumptions and back up what is currently speculation with even more speculation. We must not only assume that it represents a dinosaur, a fact that has not been established, but that it represents a dinosaur for which we don’t have evidence for its existence yet. This suggestion clashes with Occam’s razor.
Some say humans domesticated dinosaurs. (keeping it real/ CC BY SA 2.0 )
The second explanation is problematic since we don’t have any unambiguous evidence that the stegosaurus was alive in historical times let alone that it was domesticated by humans. We have found no fresh bones or harnesses, or anything which would suggest domestication of large creatures like a stegosaurus. If there ever were domestic dinosaurs, this would be the only known evidence of it.