“Khmer Ruse” (Angkor stegosaur)


There exists an ancient temple carving in Cambodia that is interpreted to be a stegosaur by some folks. “Some folks” in this case being a euphemism for Young Earth Creationists. So anthropology professor Scott Burnett investigated these claims by spending two weeks at the site, named Ta Prohm, and at adjacent Khmer locations in Angkor Archaeological Park. He reported his findings in the latest issue of Skeptical Inquirer.

Young Earth Creationists use the supposed stegosaur depiction as evidence that dinosaurs and humans were contemporaries. YECs maintain that all extinct and extant life arose by supernatural means less than 10,000 years ago, so dinosaurs dying out 150 million years back would throw a T- Rex-sized bone into that idea. Even by YEC standards, the Ta Prohm stegosaur hypothesis puts dinosaurs crazily close to the modern day. The Khmer Empire lasted from the 9th to 15th Centuries, a period that includes Joan of Arc’s brief lifetime.

The stegosaur claim made by YECs rests on these four points: 1. The carving resembles a stegosaur; 2. The image is ancient and not a modern hoax; 3. There are other known animals represented at Ta Prohm, so the carving represents a real creature; and 4. Stegosaurs had to have been known to the sculptor.

YECs are correct on point two, so we will not delve anymore into that assertion. As to the first point, while the carving somewhat resembles a stegosaur, this interpretation is primarily based on one item – apparent dorsal plates in a ridge pattern along the creature’s back. However, conspicuously missing from this supposed stegosaur are a long neck, a small plain head, and cool tail spikes, all of which are associated with this particular dinosaur.

YECs retort that the carving’s large head and horn-like appendages represent a muzzle, and that its tail spikes were removed for safety reasons by the captive stegosaur’s owner. This ad hoc reasoning is indicative of one reaching a predetermined conclusion rather than examining the evidence. There are zero anthropological or paleontological discoveries that suggest dinosaurs were alive 1,000 years ago, much less any proof that they were domesticated by Mekong Delta inhabitants.  

Further, Burnett argues that the muddled muzzle notion guess fails to account for other anatomical inconsistencies. For example, the animal’s limbs are uniform, whereas stegosaurs had long hind limbs but short, stout legs up front. As to the putative dorsal plates – the one seeming consistency with stegosaurs – there are explanations that negate the need to jump to the dinosaur conclusion. For example, Burnett pointed out the supposed plates might instead be background foliage or decorative elements. We’ll come back to that point a little later.

For now, on to the YEC’s third argument – that since there are known animals depicted at Ta Prohm, the bas relief carving is therefore a stegosaur. This is at once the affirming of the consequent fallacy and a refusal to acknowledge that mythological creatures are represented at the site.

YECs are correct that some of the carvings are of known animals. Nevertheless, Burnett cautions against exaggerating “our ability to interpret art across cultures, let alone those separated by over eight centuries, and particularly out of context.” He added that the site includes mythological animals, as well as genuine beasts who are riding atop deities. What’s more, the dividing line between natural and supernatural fauna is a blurred one in Khmer imagery.

As to the specifics of Angkor Archaeological Park carvings, they are laden with Hindu and Buddhist symbolism. The artist who created the bas relief in question may have been depicting one of those religions’ mythological animals, which has a superficial similarity with a stegosaur.

Similarly, several carvings of supposed animals at the site may not be what YECs presume them to be. Rather than being a monkey or deer, they may be a mythological beast, in the same sense that Bigfoot looks like an oversize upright gorilla and the Loch Ness Monster could be taken to be a plesiosaur’s cousin.

Burnett points out that the Indian epic Ramayana is a frequent subject matter of stone carvings in the Khmer region. The tale includes anthropomorphic primate brothers who pursue a demon that lured their sister away assuming the form of a beautiful golden deer.

“The ruins are full of Hindu and Buddhist iconography and symbolism,” Burnett wrote. “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. It also bears plates along the back reminiscent of the ‘stegosaur.” This seems a fatal blow to YEC contentions that the carving has to be of a real animal and that stegosaurs must have been known to the sculptor.

To gain a wider perspective, Burnett spent 10 days visiting the Angkor Archaeological Park, accessing and analyzing dozens images. Burnett had suspected that the supposed dorsal plates could instead be background foliage. So he searched for other animal carvings with similar features to this one, and he also looked for any images that seemed to be of the supposed stegosaur but without the plates. He explained that he looked for carving of animals with “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.” And he did uncover a depicted animal that satisfied those criteria.

As to his suspicion that the plates were actually foliage, Burnett “found clear evidence suggesting that ornamental elaboration and vegetation are much more parsimonious explanations for the appearance of the animal. Dorsal ornamentation or vegetation is clearly associated with the animal immediately above the stegosaur. Even higher in the column of images that appear to be conveying a narrative of sorts, are plate- or petal-like depictions. On other occasions, vegetation might be seen underneath or behind animals.”

Finally, the YEC assertion lacks any evidence from the time period that would be consistent with dinosaurs living amongst the Khmer people. There are no dinosaur images on ceramics, paintings, or drawings from the era. More crucially, anthropologists have yet to find dinosaur bones among cultural deposits from this period. The terrible lizards are nowhere to be found among the exhaustive species lists compiled from Khmer and Sanskrit inscriptions at Angkor sites. Additionally, Zhou Daguan served as Chinese ambassador to Angkor barely a century after the supposed stegosaur image was created. He kept a journal that included descriptions of animals from that time and place, and he jotted down nothing that would be consistent with a late Triassic herbivore.

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