A Stegosaur Carving on the Ruins of Ta Prohm? Think Again

Scott E. Burnett

Cover Image: Figure 1. The Ta Prohm carving some contend to represent a stegosaur based largely on the interpretation of dermal plates along the back.

 



Did dinosaurs live alongside humans within the past 10,000 years? Human footprints alongside dinosaur tracks at Paluxy near Glen Rose (Texas) and dinosaur figurines in archaeological contexts at Acambaro (Mexico) are among the evidence suggested to indicate so. Once properly studied, investigations revealed the Paluxy claims to be misinterpreted eroding features and dinosaur tracks, alongside outright hoaxes (Cole and Godfrey 1985; Kuban 1986). The Acambaro figurines were found to be modern manufactures subsequently planted in legitimate archaeological contexts (Di Peso 1953). Regrettably, the misinterpretation of paleontological and archaeological evidence continues (e.g., Butt 2008; Butt and Lyons 2008), requiring new analyses of the evidence and the claims themselves. Fortunately, there has been renewed skeptical attention in recent years, including effective examinations of ancient art purportedly depicting dinosaurs (e.g., Senter and Cole 2011; Senter 2012; Senter 2013; Le Quellec et al. 2015).

However, an ancient temple carving in Cambodia interpreted by some to represent a stegosaur has received little interest from the skeptical or scientific communities other than limited treatment online (e.g., Switec 2009; Nelstead 2009; Carter 2014; Kuban 2014). Here I will provide some critical thinking and anthropological insights regarding the “stegosaur” of Ta Prohm, including new evidence gained by an inspection of the location and surrounding sites in the Angkor Archaeological Park.

Ta Prohm is one of many ruins associated with the Khmer civilization of Southeast Asia, which spanned the ninth to fifteenth centuries ad. Originally known as Rajavihara, Ta Prohm is the modern name for a Buddhist monastery constructed by Jayavarman VII who reigned for several decades beginning in 1181 ad (Kapur and Sahai 2007). His reign is noted for the increased prominence of Mahayana Buddhism, though both Hinduism and Buddhism are represented among sites in the region (Kapur and Sahai 2007). Many readers may have actually seen Ta Prohm, at least in part. The 2001 film Lara Croft: Tomb Raider used the picturesque ruins and nearby sites as part of the backdrop for the film, pitting the fictional archaeologist (played by Angelina Jolie) against the Illuminati. What viewers did not see is the reason for more recent attention on Ta Prohm: a bas-relief carving that some interpret as representing a dinosaur that is found among the tree-covered walls and tumbled sandstone blocks.

After references to a stegosaur-like image began to appear in guidebooks to the ruins of the ancient Khmer (Jacques and Freeman 1997; Freeman and Jacques 1999), young-earth creationists used the supposed stegosaur depiction as evidence that dinosaurs and modern humans lived side-by-side on a young Earth. In an online posting over a decade ago, creationist Don Patton (2006) described the carved image (Figure 1) from the Khmer temple Ta Prohm, and the claim subsequently gained traction in creationist literature (Butt and Lyons 2008; Isaacs 2010; Gilmer 2013; Clarey 2015; Woetzel 2017). The superficial resemblance to a dinosaur satisfies the predetermined conclusion already drawn by young-earth creationists, who are motivated to bolster a worldview predicated on the compression of billions of years of Earth history, and the extinct and extant life on it, into less than 10,000 years. As such, the claim runs the risk of confirmation bias in which evidence is sought and interpreted, often inadvertently, in ways that are preferential or biased according to preexisting beliefs, expectations, or hypotheses (Nickerson 1998).

It is important to critically address interpretations of the Ta Prohm carving, as it is claimed to be some of the best evidence for recent contemporaneity of dinosaurs and humans (Isaacs 2010; Clarey 2015). The stegosaur claim made by young-earth creationists consists of four principal components:

  1. The carving resembles a stegosaur, an ornithischian dinosaur;
  2. The image is an ancient carving and not a modern-day hoax;
  3. There are many other familiar animals represented, so the Ta Prohm carving represents a real animal; and
  4. Stegosaurs must have been known to the inhabitants of Ta Prohm or at least to the sculptor who apparently depicted it.

Let’s examine these components, in brief, before analyzing the alternatives in more detail. While the carving does resemble a stegosaur, the similarity is superficial. It rests largely on a single criterion—the appearance of what are perceived to be dermal plates along the back. Others have pointed out that the Ta Prohm carving lacks additional anatomical features of stegosaurs, including a long neck, a small, unornamented head, and tail spikes. The latter are often referred to by paleontologists as the thagomizer after an early Far Side cartoon—who says scientists are humorless? While these anatomical inconsistencies are often overlooked or dismissed via special pleading by proponents of the stegosaur interpretation, a new suggestion has appeared in the literature recently: the large head and horn-like projections are actually evidence of a muzzle over a smaller head, while the typical tail spikes were removed by their keepers to make them less dangerous (Woetzel 2017). In other words, some contend that the ancient Khmer not only lived alongside dinosaurs but had also domesticated them! Such wild speculation cannot account for other anatomical incongruences. For example, less frequently mentioned is that the limb proportions of the animal in the carving do not seem to display the profound discrepancy in limb length seen in stegosaurs, with their elongated hind limbs and relatively short, squat forelimbs. So while the carving resembles a stegosaur at first glance, the similarities are limited to the apparent dorsal plates. Other possibilities exist to explain the presence of this single characteristic. For example, they could represent background foliage or merely decorative elements, and a recent attempt to dismiss this possibility and discern the intent of the carver through limited measurements (Woetzel 2017) is unconvincing.

As for the second contention, there is no reason to think that the Ta Prohm carving is a modern hoax. References to the carving predate the filming of Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, so it is unlikely to have been doctored by a visiting movie crew, for example. Furthermore, Ta Prohm has seen little of the reconstruction work seen at other nearby sites. Although the image is lighter than most surrounding images, the remnants of patina, the depth of the carvings, and the amount of overburden all support the image being original to the complex. My visits to Ta Prohm lead me to believe that the Ta Prohm carving is not modern and is only lighter than surrounding carvings because someone has zealously cleaned it for photographing.

Patton and others are also correct that many animals can be recognizable in other pilaster roundels and bas-reliefs at Ta Prohm. Nevertheless, we should be cautious with our ability to interpret art across cultures, let alone those separated by over eight centuries, and particularly out of context. After all, interpretations of a “water buffalo” noted by Patton just above the “stegosaur” (Figure 2) vary widely. It is even referred to by one Angkor guide as a kangaroo, an interpretation that is likely influenced by a more upright body posture than expected for a large quadrupedal bovid. Specifically, I believe that most proponents of the carving as a stegosaur, many of whom do not appear to have visited the site, insufficiently acknowledge that mythological animals are also frequently represented in Ta Prohm roundels or in other bas-reliefs in the Angkor region. Some even bear divinities as riders (Figure 3). Furthermore, the distinction between natural and supernatural fauna is not clear-cut in Khmer temple symbolism. 

Figure 2. The Ta Prohm “stegosaur” is part of a vertical strip of roundel carvings. Numerous figures above and below contain dorsal or other peripheral ornamenta- tion, including human figures near the top of the column.

Sites in the Angkor Archaeological Park are imbued with religious symbolism from both Hindu and Buddhist traditions. A Khmer carver may have created one of many animals figuring in Hindu or Buddhist mythology that, in this case, shares a superficial similarity with a stegosaur, albeit coincidentally. In fact, several of the animals recognized by Patton, including the monkey and deer, may be mythological in origin and may not have been intended to portray local animals as he assumes. The Indian hero epic Ramayana is a frequent subject matter in stone carvings at ancient Khmer sites. Several monkey characters appear, including anthropomorphic monkey brothers who are estranged over a kingdom of monkeys. The hero of the epic, Rama, encounters them while pursuing the demon who kidnapped his wife, Sita, after luring her away with another demon who assumes the appearance of a beautiful golden deer.

In light of the potential that the stegosaur interpretation of the carving has been all too readily accepted because it is perceived as supporting a pre-drawn conclusion of a young Earth, I have considered several alternatives. To do so, I spent ten days visiting the Angkor Archaeological Park during the summers of 2011 and 2017. Aside from exploring Ta Prohm on three occasions, I visited dozens of monuments in the region constructed over a span of more than 400 years (ninth to thirteenth centuries ad, primarily). Though the sites vary in their construction and use of bas-reliefs and sculpture, holistically the sites visited provide a broad sample of monuments to evaluate, both predating and contemporaneous with Ta Prohm. My search, encompassing roughly between seventy and eighty hours over the two trips, was intensive. Many carvings are eroded, covered in vegetation, and buried, while others are vandalized or stolen; many site complexes still lay in piles of rubble. 

I pursued two primary inquiries.

  1. Many assume that the animals depicted are real animals that are familiar to the artist, even going so far as to claim, “There are no mythological figures among the roundels, so one can reasonably conclude that these figures depict the animals that were commonly seen by the ancient Khmer people in the twelfth century” (Cole 2007). However, the possibility of this animal being mythological should not be quickly dismissed. During my visits, I looked for creatures that were mythological in nature. The presence of mythological animals at Ta Prohm would draw into question the contention that the stegosaur carving must be a real animal.
  2. Could this carving actually represent the melding of an animal in the foreground with a background motif? As mentioned earlier, the plates on the back of the animal depicted in the Ta Prohm carving may represent background elaboration or even foliage. For supporting evidence, I looked for other animal carvings with similar “plates,” foliage, or other background motifs. In addition, if the dermal plates on the supposed stegosaur are really just background or decorative elements, then there might be depictions of the same animal without the background elaboration. Accordingly, I searched for other depictions of a morphologically similar animal, focusing on the presence of five key characteristics—quadrupedal posture, thick limbs of roughly equal length, an arched back, ornamented head, and long tail, in the absence of a sixth characteristic—dorsal plates.

My findings? Anyone who has spent any significant time at the Angkor Archaeological Park examining bas-relief or sculpture cannot reasonably come to the conclusion that the depictions must all be of real animals. Why should we expect them to be? The ruins are full of Hindu and Buddhist iconography and symbolism, often both at the same complex. Garuda, nāga, hamsa, kāla—mythological and supernatural beings abound at sites in the region. Some are chimeric in nature, including at Ta Prohm a muscular animal sitting upright, with a bird beak and long ears or horns (Figure 3). It also bears plates along the back reminiscent of the “stegosaur.” It is simply erroneous to assert that the stegosaur-like animal has to be a genuinely known species and not mythological. Why should we be surprised? The carvings at Ta Prohm, like other Angkor sites, primarily reflect the dominant religious symbols and iconography at the time (Roveda 2005). Ta Prohm, as a monastic temple, is no exception. Images at the monument simply cannot all be interpreted as literal, informational placards representing local fauna.

Figure 3. Supernatural and mythological creatures are common at Ta Prohm. Seen here are a divinity on his mythological mount (left), garuda (center), and a muscular rabbit-like, bird-beaked chimera with dorsal plates (right).

 

I also found clear evidence suggesting that ornamental elaboration and vegetation are much more parsimonious explanations for the appearance of the animal (Figure 4). Dorsal ornamentation or vegetation is clearly associated with the animal immediately above the stegosaur (Figure 2). Even higher in the column of images that appear to be conveying a narrative of sorts, are plate- or petal-like depictions surrounding a vandalized Buddhist image (many images of Buddha or Bodhisattva were defaced during the religious iconoclastic upheaval after the rule of Jayarvarman VII) and other humans containing background plate-like elements, sometimes extensively. On other occasions, vegetation might be seen underneath or behind animals, often regardless of differences in scale.

Figure 4. Floral and vegetative motifs on their own (left), behind one (center left), or more figures (center right). Animals are sometimes depicted on flowers (right top), or in front of flowers (right middle) or other vegetation (right bottom). All photos from Ta Prohm except image from Bayon at right bottom.


Some skeptics have claimed that the image represents another real animal with or without background vegetation (the dorsal plates), with rhinoceros, boar, pangolin, and lizard among the potential candidates (Roveda 2005; Novella 2008; Carter 2014; Kuban 2014). I am leery of most of these identifications, primarily because each differs morphologically as much from the carving as does an actual stegosaur. I did, however, find an image of a similar animal without the dorsal plates—compelling evidence that these features thought to be dorsal plates are likely to be background or design elements, regardless of whether the animal was intended to represent a real or mythological species. Near the end of my last trip, I noted some carvings near ground level in the same general area as the purported stegosaur. There, roughly eighty feet south I found an animal fitting all of the primary characteristics of the carving in question—quadrupedal, thick limbs of equal length, arched back, ornamented head, and long tail (Figure 5). The only key distinction is the lack of plates along the back.

Figure 5. Both Ta Prohm carvings appear to depict the same quadrupedal animal with a large, ornamented head, arched back, thick limbs of equal length, and long tail. This suggests that the “dorsal plates” responsible for the superficial resemblance to a stegosaur (left) merely represent vegetation or other artistic elaboration.


Confirmation bias can lead some to interpret possible evidence more favorably than merited and, as seen above, ignore or downplay alternative possibilities. In this case, to critically examine the claim that the Ta Prohm carving represents an actual stegosaur, it is also necessary to consider the many unanswered questions this improbable position entails, independent of the image itself. For example, why is a single stegosaur represented and not other dinosaurs if they truly coexisted with humans? Why do we not find their bones in recent natural or cultural deposits from Cambodia? Why are they not represented on ceramics or other forms of Khmer art, or even depicted in the numerous other sites pre-dating, contemporaneous with, or post-dating Ta Prohm? Indeed, why are dinosaurs not among the extensive species lists culled from the seventh to fourteenth century Khmer or Sanskrit inscriptions at Angkor sites (Jacob 1993), nor those compiled by Zhou Daguan (2007), the Chinese ambassador to Angkor who chronicled his year there, at most a mere century later, including a description of the local fauna? These lists contain domestic and wild fauna, including fish, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and mammals, from the lowly tick and ant to the mighty elephant and rhino. Why then no stegosaur? Given the results of my inquiry into the carvings at Angkor and the identification of another carving without the dorsal plates but demonstrating all the other morphological hallmarks of the purported stegosaur carving, the answer becomes even clearer: there were no dinosaurs living alongside the Khmer.

 


Acknowledgements

Thanks to Dr. Allan Meyers (Professor of Anthropology, Eckerd College) for his comments and suggestions on an earlier draft of this article.

 


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Cover Image: Figure 1. The Ta Prohm carving some contend to represent a stegosaur based largely on the interpretation of dermal plates along the back.   Did dinosaurs live alongside humans within the past 10,000 years? Human footprints alongside dinosaur tracks at Paluxy near Glen Rose (Texas) and dinosaur figurines in archaeological contexts at Acambaro …

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