Ta Prohm Stegosaur Gets A Closer Look

Ta Prohm Stegosaur Gets A Closer Look

In the files of crytozoology there are many supposed cases of remnants of dinosaurs surviving to the present.
Nessie and all of her lake monster sisters, Mokolo Mbembe in Africa, pterosaur sightings that some attribute to the Thunderbird, and a slew of recent sightings in New Guinea. Among the “evidence” used to support the survival of dinosaurs into the modern day is the Ta Prohm Stegasaurus.

Glen J. Kuban’s website has an analysis in progress

Stegosaurus Carving on a Cambodian Temple?

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 lobes along the back of the carving animal. Although superficially resembling the bony back plates of stegosaurs, 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 chameleon 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.

While I personally have doubts that the Cambodians of a thousand years ago had excavated and reassembled a stegasaurus skeleton, I think examination of the nearby carvings clearly represent a motif of similar lobes.

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).

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. 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.” Carl Baugh sells replicas of the carving at his Creationevidence.com website, where he matter-of-factly calls the carving a Stegosaurus. He also has an outdoor display devoted to the find at his little “Creation Evidence Museum” in Texas, where the Stegosaurus 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.

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. 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 be modern forgery, 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 hoax 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.

Some have also noted that the lobes appear to be well delineated from the body, further suggesting that they were not intended to be parts of it. Even if the lobes did represent parts of the animals body (which seems unlikely), it would provide little help to the stegosaur proponents, since they could represent the exaggerated spines or ridges on the backs of chameleons or other lizards.

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 also 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.

Most other aspects of the creature are not very stegosaur like, and are actually more compatible with a rhinoceros or chameleon. Specifically, stegosaurs 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.

Another signigificant problem for the stegosaur adherents is the lack of tail spikes on the carving. These manacing weapons, often called “thagomizers” after a Gary Larson cartoon, are among the most unique and stunning features of stegosaurs, 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, two large projections are seen at the back of the head on the carved creature. No such features would be expected on a stegosaur. However, they could readily represent ears on a rhino,

…or the folds or furrows of a chameleon neck frill, or as noted earlier.

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 can be trusted to be very realistic or meaningful. 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.

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 contrary features and alternate explanations, let alone the extensive geologic evidence against human and dinosaur cohabitation. As the adage goes, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” As noted on the “Eye on the ICR blog,” the alleged stegosaur not only lacks extraordinary evidence, but “doesn’t even have much of the non-extraordinary kind.” (Peter, 2013)

There is one more analysis I would add and that is of this image in the same panel.

Apparently a completely fanciful creature seems to be supporting the other two. Its hair being a continuation of the general motif that lends to the stegosaurus analysis.

Unless of course the Young Earth Creationsists are going to include Maurice Sendak’s “Where The Wild Things Are” to their theories.

Joking aside there are a few points that go beyond analyzing the artistic license of a people who lived a thousand years ago and believed in demons and dragons.

First, while certainly not the largest of the dinosaurs, the Stegosaurus is still pretty impressive in size.

Stegosaurus were herbivores, grazers, and likely herd animals. Even if they were solitary they are so unlike anything else that a in an Asian country where belief in dragons has been prevalent, if this had been a living creature we might expect to find it more highly represented in their art, yet this one example stands out as a singular representation, and one not particularly prominent even in its own context.

Next is a concept that will always be an issue with the large cryptids, Minimum Viable Population. This is the minimum number of animals that are needed for a population to continue without significant risk of inbreeding or disease simply wiping them all out at once.

From Wikipedia

Minimum Viable Population is usually estimated as the population size necessary to ensure between 90 and 95 percent probability of survival between 100 to 1,000 years into the future.

And that is a pretty conservative period of time when addressing the survival of a species for 60 million years, and certainly does not take into account changes in climate and food sources that have wiped out thousands of other species far better adapted to our recent history (the latest few tens of thousands of years). Between 500 and 1000 individuals is a common estimate for survival without taking into account human interaction with a species in either wiping it out or cross breeding it for purposes of preservation. That is a lot of animals each far larger than the typical delivery truck to be grazing around the countryside and go unnoticed. Even presuming that a dinosaur is a less complex life form that a modern mammal (for which there is no reason to presume) and saying that there are 500 of these living in the jungles of south east Asia to maintain a viable population, lets look at their diet. An average elephant, just for reference, eats between 200 and 400 pounds of food per day. I will tip the hat to those who profess to “know” Dinos were cold blooded, and add that the Stegosaurus was larger than an elephant and simply for the sake of argument stick with that number. Assuming an average of 300, that comes to 75 tons of vegetation consumed per day. 27,375  tons per year not accounting for population increase. Roughly the same as a herd of 2000 cattle. And they would have had to continued to do this through several climate changes, which wiped out other large herbivores such as the mammoth and mastodon.

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Henry Paterson