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The dinosaur carving at Ta Prohm temple in Cambodia.

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.

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.

The Ta Prohm ‘dinosaur’.

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.

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.

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. 

It Could be a Dinosaur, Or a Rhinceros or Boar…

In light of this, it is more likely that the creature depicted on the temple is meant to represent a creature more well-known to the ancient Khmers. Scholars have noted that the creature bears resemblance to a boar, rhinoceros, or stylized chameleon, among other animals. It does not exactly resemble these animals either, but there are just as many reasons to suggest that it is a rhinoceros, its ears and the shape of its head, as there are to suggest that it is a stegosaurus, the protrusions resembling dorsal plates. The creature’s identity is ambiguous at best. We cannot say for certain that it is not a dinosaur, but since we do have definitive evidence that the Khmers encountered rhinoceroses, boars, and chameleons but not living dinosaurs, it is more likely in light of the evidence and Occam’s razor, that it is one of the more mundane animals suggested and not a relict population of stegosaurus.

Others believe the Ta Prohm dinosaur is actually a rhinoceros.

Others believe the Ta Prohm dinosaur is actually a rhinoceros. ( CC0)

Another issue has to do with the environment itself. Since we have no indisputable evidence of recent dinosaur remains that are not fossilized and encased in solid rock that is millions of years old, any living dinosaurs would have to be extremely rare and most likely restricted to a remote area where they would be safe from predators, such as humans, and abrupt changes in their environment. As a comparison, the Wollemi pine tree, a relict population of a tree that was widespread in the Mesozoic, exists only in a very isolated part of Australia which has probably changed little over many millennia.

Kew Gardens Wollemi Pine (Wollemia nobilis), London.

Kew Gardens Wollemi Pine (Wollemia nobilis), London. ( CC BY SA 3.0 )

At the time the temple was built, Cambodia was the home of a major urban civilization, the Khmer Empire and has been continually inhabited by humans since at least the Lower Paleolithic. Humans have definitely disturbed the environment in southeast Asia, felling forests and establishing farmland, towns, and cities. As a result, it is by no means isolated from influences which could upset the environment and drive a vulnerable relict population into extinction. While this doesn’t make it impossible that there was a population of dinosaurs in the area to be detected by humans so late in history, it does make it less likely.

Some Conclusions on the ‘Dinosaur’

The only reason to conclude that it is a dinosaur is because it fits into some people’s preferred explanations, such as young earth creationists who believe that dinosaurs and humans coexisted or fringe thinkers who believe in a surviving relict population of dinosaurs that didn’t go extinct, which are valid, logically coherent positions, but ones that are not currently supported by any indisputable evidence.

Currently we have no unambiguous evidence from the fossil record or historical records that humans and dinosaurs coexisted; as a result, the explanation that the creature is a stegosaurus is a less likely position than the position that it is a rhinoceros, chameleon, boar, some other modern animal, or even a mythical creature. We have definite evidence that the rhinoceros, boar, or chameleon coexisted with humans and could have been encountered by humans and described by artists. On the other hand, we do not have any evidence that dinosaurs were in the region at the same time as humans or that humans would ever have encountered them. Also, the densely populated Khmer Empire is an unlikely place to find a relict population of large prehistoric reptiles. More likely explanations need to be ruled out before the less likely explanation that the artist encountered a live dinosaur can be considered preferable.

The Ta Prohm ‘dinosaur’ amongst other carvings.

The Ta Prohm ‘dinosaur’ amongst other carvings. (Uwe Schwarzbach/ CC BY NC SA 2.0 )

Top Image: The dinosaur carving at Ta Prohm temple in Cambodia. Source: Harald Hoyer/ CC BY SA 2.0

By Caleb Strom

References

Higham, Charles.  The civilization of Angkor . Univ of California Press, 2001.

Boddy, Janice, and Michael Lambek, eds.  A Companion to the Anthropology of Religion . Vol. 25. John

Wiley & Sons, 2015.

Higham, Charles.  The archaeology of mainland Southeast Asia: from 10,000 BC to the fall of Angkor .

Cambridge University Press, 1989. 

“The Stegosaur Engravings at Ta Prohm” by David Woetzel (2017). Answers Research Journal . Available at: https://answersingenesis.org/dinosaurs/humans/stegosaur-engravings-at-ta-prohm/

“Stegosaurus, Rhinoceros, or Hoax?” by Brian Switek (2009). Smithsonian Magazine. Available at: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/stegosaurus-rhinoceros-or-hoax-40387948/

Comments

Just a thought here... Has anyone considered that the people at the time may have discovered Stegosaur fossils and just reimaged them into the temple? Stegosaurus' have been found in Southern India, so it isn't so huge a leap to come to that conclusion.
IMO - It is a much more fitting explanation than either living descendants of the animal or that they could have been rhinos or boars. The image looks unmistakably like a Stegosaurus and does not look at all like it is a representation of a boar or rhino. The people that built those temples were incredible artists, as such, if they wanted to depict a rhino... They would have, and we would be able to tell.
Cheers

Tsurugi's picture

I am not a 6k creationist or a believer in "relict" dinosaurs, but that carving looks like a dinosaur to me, and I'm willing to bet it looks like a dinosaur to anyone else who doesn't walk around with the Standard Model shoved way up their.... well, you get the idea.

What "flourishes" is the author talking about? I have heard this hand-waving explanation before but have never seen anyone provide a real example of what, exactly, they are talking about. There are similar-ish objects along the outside edges of the borders of the enclosed areas that contain the various animal carvings, but that border is actually a couple of entwined serpents, and the "flourishes" along their backs look like they are actually parts of their bodies, not merely artistic decoration. They look like spinal fins, giving the impression the snakes are sea serpents.
In any case, the "plates" along the back of the "stegosaurus" carving look nothing like the "fins" along the backs of the serpents.
Another thing that casts eyebrow-raising doubt on the contention that the "plates" are merely "artistic flourishes" is the total lack of any such accoutrements around any of the animal carvings above and below the erstwhile stego.

Similarly, the lack of tail spikes is easily explained by the simple fact that the end of the tail is not in the picture. Again, this is immediately obvious to anyone not desperate for a reason to say the carving isn't what it appears to be.

There are no tusks. It isn't a boar.

The overall body shape is completely wrong for it to be a hippo.

As for the shape of the head, the conventional depiction of the stegosaurus head is a guesstimate based on the shape of its skull. But the skull bones do not usually give a good idea of what the head of a living animal looks like. Compare a horse skull to the head of a living horse, for example. An even better example is a male lion. Cat skulls look weird already, and there is no way to know the animal would have a huge distinctive mane, or how the ears and nose would be shaped, the whiskers, the cheshire smile shape of the feline mouth, just from looking at the skull. So the argument "Well that doesn't look like a saran-wrapped stegosaurus skull so it can't be a stegosaurus" is not really valid.

I prefer articles that give all sides of an argument. This article sort of pretends to do that, but it presents the pro-stego argument as simply being "cuz it looks like one" and then undermines even that by implying it only looks like that to people who really really want it to be a dinosaur since it fits their prejudices. It then proceeds to deliver a list of standard debunkery straight from the websites of professional skeptics, but fails to enumerate any of the counters to said shillery, giving the impression of a Q.E.D. when nothing could be further from the truth.

If I want the Standard Model or the skerpderping of its paid shills, there are innumerable websites parroting those points of view I can go to. I come to AO for different perspectives, or at the very least for some debunking of debunkery, and I shouldn't have to provide the content myself in the comment section, lol.

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