Does this carving at the Ta Prohm temple complex in Cambodia prove that dinosaurs of the genus Stegosaurus were still alive in Southeast Asian jungles only 1000 years ago?
Some young-Earth creationists think so. An example of a web page dedicated to this is found at Bible.ca: Dinosaurs in ancient Cambodian temple — Amazing evidence that dinosaurs and humans coexisted. Other carvings in this temple are of local animals such as deer, monkeys, and birds, and so this carving must prove that Stegosaurus was wandering around the jungles of Southeast Asia as well.
My response is: No.
I’ve been wanting to write about this one for some time, and was prompted into action when I saw this discussed on a paleontology blog this morning (Dinosaur Tracking: Stegosaurus, Rhinoceros, or Hoax?).
Superficially, this carving looks like a Stegosaurus. It has the arched shape that Stegosaurus toys sometimes have, and a row of things that look like plates running down the back. Here are my reasons why I don’t think this carving is of a Stegosaurus:
- The head is completely wrong for Stegosaurus. Stegosaurus had a tiny head; the carvings in Cambodia show a creature with a proportionately larger head.
- The tail is wrong for Stegosaurus. Where are the spikes?
- The legs are wrong for Stegosaurus. In the carving, the front and hind legs are of equal length; in a real Stegosaurus the hind legs are considerably longer than the front legs.
- The body is wrong for Stegosaurus. Back in the late 1800s and early 1900s, Stegosaurus, and many other dinosaurs, were depicted with arched backs. Based on further study, we now know that most dinosaurs had less curvature in their backs. Look at the picture above for a modern interpretation, and at the picture below for the 100-year old interpretation.
- The back plates in the carving are only superficially similar to the plates found on fossil Stegosaurus, which actually had two parallel rows of plates.
- Similar features are found on the perimeter of some other carvings (though not on the backs of the animals). For example, here is a carving interpreted by Bible.ca as a water buffalo, with, um… Stegosaurus plates for a decorative border:
- If Stegosaurus lived in Cambodia only 1000 years ago when the Angkor Wat/Ta Prohm temples were built, why are there no Stegosaurus bones found in Asia, whether in archeological sites or in the fossil record?
- There are plausible alternatives. Some have suggested a rhinoceros or boar in front of a vegetated background. I think a much better alternative is a chameleon. The head and eyes are right, the overall body shape isn’t bad, and chameleons have a serrated ridge along their back (though not as pronounced as on the carving). The tail isn’t quite right, but it isn’t right for being a Stegosaurus either. Given two possibilities—Stegosaurus or chameleon—I think we should go for the chameleon in this case.
- Another alternative is that this represents a mythical Hindu creature, such as a makara.
I would hope that the above reasoning would be sufficient to convince even young-Earth creationists to not use this sort of argument. In some cases this has been true: I see this kind of stuff on the fringe YEC sites, but haven’t seen it used by Answers in Genesis or the Institute for Creation Research, both of which have people capable of sifting out the more extreme claims. [Update 3/23/09: AiG does use this as evidence. Sigh]
As a Christian who accepts an old age for the Earth, I would add one more argument against the validity of the Ta Prohm Stegosaurus carving:
- Stegosaurus fossils are only found in rocks of the Late Jurassic period, with no examples from the Cretaceous or Cenozoic. Did they hide for 145 million years, only to show up in the jungles of Cambodia?
Another possibility is that this carving is a fraud, having been carved in the past century. This could be, but I have assumed in this post that the carving is genuine.
In conclusion, to use the Ta Prohm carving as evidence that humans and dinosaurs lived together only a short time ago is bad apologetics. This is one more thing to make us look silly in the eyes of nonbelievers. Don’t feed this to your kids, and don’t use it to try to convince anyone of the truthfulness of Scriptures. As a Christian, I believe that the Bible is true and that it says exactly what God wants it to say. We don’t have to resort to pseudoarcheology to defend it.
Grace and Peace