Feb 19 2008

Ancient Cambodian Stegosaurus?

Any bit of nonsense can be used to derive some general observations about logical fallacies, scientific methodology, and faulty thinking. So sometimes I like to take a poke at more lighthearted silliness, and also I love dinosaurs (I have always been partial to stegosaurus in particular) and pointing out creationist illogic is one of my favorite hobbies. So how could I resist this gem – the claim in www.bible.ca that an ancient Cambodian temple at Angkor contains a carving of a stegosaurus.

There are many preserved reliefs of various animals on the surviving temple walls. One of them depict this curious creature.

The author believes that this is a depiction of a stegosaurus. In a section headed “let’s do some science” he argues:

A few skeptics have based their objections on anatomical differences between popular Stegosaurus restorations and the Cambodian sculpture. The fact that the average Jr. High student immediately identifies the sculpture as a Stegosaurus is considered of no consequence. “The head is too large Stegosaurs had no horns or frills on the head” The sculpture has no spikes on the tail… Therefore, they conclude that the sculptor never saw a Stegosaurus.

One is tempted to respond to these claims by pointing out that our modern restorations involve some guess work, that Stegosaurs may have exhibited a significant amount of anatomical variety (like dogs), that a view of tail spikes may well be blocked by the surrounding stone circle, etc., etc. However, this line of reasoning focuses the discussion on the wrong issue. The relevant question is not, Can you find anatomical differences with today’s popular restorations? Rather, the real question is, What kind of sculpture would be produced by an artist who remembered seeing a Stegosaurus?

Is it the “wrong issue” to point out the anatomical difference? Not at all – they bear directly onto the actual relevant scientific question. Are there any details in the picture that are specific to a stegosaurus – that would distinguish it from other similar animals, a type of lizard, for example? This type of reasoning is common in medicine – we do not make a specific diagnosis based upon vague or common symptoms. We look for signs, symptoms, or laboratory abnormalities that are specific to the diagnosis in question. The more specific the better.

Here is a picture of a stegosaurus:

Those details that would allow us to make a specific diagnosis of stegosaurus are missing from the temple relief. There are no spikes on the tail, there are not two rows of back plates, and the shape of the plates are not correct. Also, when looking at a stegosaurus a feature that immediately sticks out is the almost ridiculously small head that is very low to the ground. If an artist wanted to capture the essence of a stegosaurus getting the head right would be crucial. Look at the other animals depicted on the temple walls – they are very recognizable. So obviously the temple artists had sufficient skill and the artistic tradition used was one of fairly accurate depiction.

The author, however, does not want to ask the correct question – is there anything in the image specific to a stegosaurus. Because that question comes up with the “wrong” answer. He dismisses the lack of details by saying that perhaps this was a different species of stegosaurus. This if not unreasonable – this was a group of dinosaurs, not a single species. But they all have that characteristic small head – lacking in this picture. So this hypothesis does not account sufficiently for the differences between this picture and the anatomy of a stegosaurus, and is therefore just an example of special pleading.

The question he wants to ask is this: “What kind of sculpture would be produced by an artist who remembered seeing a Stegosaurus?” This is a fair question. We can infer from the other reliefs that the temple artist/s would have been very accurate, unlike this picture. But the author engages in an absurd exercise. He asks art students to draw a stegosaurus from memory, arguing that this would allow us to infer what an artist drawing a stegosaurus from memory would produce. Take a look at the pictures. Some are downright wrong, from which I would conclude that those students just don’t know what a stegosaurus is. But many of the pictures are far better than the temple relief. They show tail spikes, the characteristic small head, and appropriately shaped back plates. Artistically they are perhaps not as good as the temple relief, but they show specific details the relief lacks. And yet the author concludes that the temple carving is better than the art students’ drawings. He concludes: “Prejudice has the power to makes us look awfully ridiculous.” How true.

Also, keep in mind that he is arguing the temple artist saw a live stegosaurus. That would make more of an impression than perhaps seeing the skeleton of one at a museum or a reconstruction.

The author also fails to ask another very fundamental question – does the picture look like anything other than a stegosaurus. (Could this patient have a different diagnosis to explain the symptoms we see?) This is always a good – even necessary – question in science. Take a look at these pictures of chameleons:

Ding, ding, ding, ding, ding! I think we have a winner. At the very least we can conclude that the temple relief looks much more like a chameleon than a stegosaurus. The head is a much better fit, the tail lacks spikes, and the back even has ridges. There are lots of species of chameleons, and there may be one that fits even better than these examples I found. Of course, every argument you can bring to bear to say that the picture is not a good fit to a chameleon applies even more to the stegosaurus hypothesis. (Any readers who can find a better species fit, let me know.) Of note, the word “chameleon” does not appear on the bible.ca website.

We could also get into the notion of probability – the fact that there is no evidence for the survival of stegosaurus in the last 140 million years.

So what general lessons do we derive from this example? Working backwards from a desired conclusion can and will produce all manner of twisted logic. One can bias the conclusions reached by choosing the questions to ask – rather than asking the correct questions. And when trying to make the correct diagnosis reliably, details matter. Those details that are more specific are more useful than those that are vague or nonspecific.

Oh, and dinosaurs are cool and creationists are terrible pseudoscientists.

56 responses so far

56 thoughts on “Ancient Cambodian Stegosaurus?”

  1. What is obvious to Dr. Novella may not be to every reader of this worthy blog and has gone unstated: Claiming this relief sculpture is drawn from the eye witness account of the sculptor isn’t merely poor science, it’s part and parcel of the creationist agenda. The sculptor needn’t have seen a living stegosaurus – a nearly complete fossil would have sufficed – but that is not what the author claims. As a creationist, he needs to support an anachronism that serves to undermine evolution, the timeline for dinosaurs, and science as a whole. As a creationist, he needs for humans and dinosaurs to have walked the earth at the same time. He needs for this to be a representation of a living stegosaurus.

    This is a common creationist gambit. Google “San Francisco Sea Serpent” and you’ll find a woolly tale of marine dinosaurs in San Francisco Bay, replete with photos and video, all of it blurry and indistinct, of course, none of it supported by any reputable scientist. However, one Clifford Paiva, a former ‘scientist’ for the US government (details on that escape me) fully endorsed it – specifically as a momentous find that upsets the evolutionist applecart. Paiva is a ‘graduate’ of the Institute for Creationist Research wherein grads were once forced to take a solemn vow to make no scientific fnding that contradicts the ierrant Bible. No… really.

    Readers may recall Paiva as one of those folks who ‘proved’ Noah’s Ark exists on a Turkish mountainside.

    I also recall a case in Texas where creatronists claim to have evidence of human footprints alongside dinosaur tracks, implying the sought-after anachronism that undermines all things evolution and science.

    I have little doubt creationists have teams of ‘researchers’ looking for other seeming anachronisms ripe for exploitation.

    Another great entry, sir.

  2. JustinWilson says:

    When I looked at the drawing, I saw a stegosaurus. Then again, I also saw one of the coolest creatures that happen to actually live in Cambodia. While, the back “horns” may be a little inaccurate, the head is what I like to call perfect. Check out Acanthosaura Armata and tell me that isn’t one cool lizard!


  3. Muero says:

    Here’s another image that could be represented in that stone:


  4. Muero says:

    Sorry for triple posting, but I just noticed something that may be important. Check out the little bump on the stone where the animal’s eye is. Chameleons have very unique eyes, and that reminds me of a chameleon eye.

  5. EdSG says:

    Had it been a fossil of an stegosaurus in Cambodia contemporary to the sculptures, we could look further into it as this would be contrary to the falsifiable Theory of Evolution.

    For creationist *everything* fits their theories, if not, it must be evil-spitting-atheists scientist covering it up.

  6. Blair T says:

    Steve, I got to to object to your diagnosis.

    You point out some anatomical differences with stegosaurus then propose an alternative with clear anatomical difference – the legs on the carving look like a large animal standing upright – not the bent ones of any lizard-like creature.

    I don’t know what this might be, but here is my two cents:
    – The ‘back plates’ may be decorative and not meant to be part of the creature.
    – It may be a known animal – but we are just not familiar with it.
    – It may be an extinct unknown animal.
    – It may be a mythical or made up creature

  7. petrucio says:

    The first time I looked at it, I saw a Rhyno with an inverted horn (I did NOT noticed the black plates – I agree that they may be decorative)

    The author might have seen an incomplete fossil with just the back plates and filled out the blanks.

    But Chameleon? HELL NO! I easily see more problems with a chameleon interpretation than you pointed out in the Stegosaurus one.

  8. Roy Niles says:

    That was an ancient chameleon whose image was distorted through repeated representations made though oral history that in an odd way validated the theory of evolution by adding triangular plates. Artistic license was also in vogue at the time.

  9. Freeman74 says:

    I agree, I don’t know that it really is a spitting image of a Chameleon either. However, I’m quite sure it’s not a stegosaurus. One of the most telling things I saw from the original site was that other reliefs had decorative “things” on them. There is a picture they claim is clearly a water buffalo, that has somewhat similar plates that could be on its back, if it were not being considered a water buffalo. I don’t think the plates are actually supposed to be part of the animal. I really don’t have a guess to what it could be though. I have to agree that the legs make it look like a large creature rather than a chameleon, but some of the other reliefs that the site claims are “beautiful representations” of the animals are lost on me as well. Especially one of them they are saying is a swan. Looks more like a seahorse to me.

  10. Something else not noted in Novella’s post or ours… check out the serpent which encircles the ‘stegosaurus’. It has the same plates as does the ‘stegosaurus’, though it remains unclear whehter they are anatomical or decorative. At least I *think* it’s a serpent.

    If a serpent, it appears to have eaten some things.. little lumps along its body. Perhaps the ‘stegosaurus’ is being singled out for a special relief sculpture because snakes can’t or won’t eat it, thus winning notice from the culture of the sculptor? Hmmm…

    Damn you, God, for not being inerrant with clarity!

  11. PS: Let’s not rule out photoshopical shennanigans either.

  12. Roy Niles says:

    As a segue from shenanigans, here’s a deceptively simple conundrum: Is it relevant that Dr. Novella was wrong about the chameleon if he was right that it’s not a stegosaurus?

  13. Thanks for all the excellent suggestions. I agree that they are all possible, and I agree that there are problems with the chameleon – especially the legs. But as I said – the question is, what is a better fit, and I maintain that chameleon is better than stegosaurus. The head and overall body shape are a good fit.

    But I also agree that I have not found the specific species, and there may be a non-chameleon lizard species that fit better.

    Also, we are discussing this largely in ignorance. I would not be surprised if an actual archaeologist – someone who knows about the culture that created this temple, would instantly recognize the figure for what it is, or the plates as decoration or symbolism. We might be trying to do something as silly as identify the human race that has a halo over their head, as depicted in medieval European artwork.

    So anyone who can find a better fit than what I found in 5 minutes on Google, or who can identify an archaeological answer wins bonus points. I’ll keep looking too and tell you what I find.

    But in the meantime, one thing is clear – it’s not a stegosaurus and the creationist’s arguments are not valid.

  14. Crazyharp81602 says:

    On a post I made on my own blog, I’ve concluded the carving to be a wild boar. Note how the carving is surrounded by heads of animals that resemble pigs. I remember one time I looked at a creationist magazine that claims these heads are of Mesozoic swimming reptiles like Plesiosaurs and Ichthyosaurus. But the temple is not found near a beach, but is way far inland. So, the heads cannot be of swimming reptiles at all, but heads of wild boars surrounding the center boar standing in front of a bush.

    The Stegosaurus carving that isn’t

  15. daedalus2u says:

    Interesting that believers in Biblical Creationism would use as “proof” a series of presumed historic carvings that include a carving of a Hindu God. Presumably the carver of the Hindu God Indra was as much an “eye witness” as was the carver of the stegosaurus.

    An eye witness of the Hindu God Indra pretty much falsifies all the non-Hindu religions, including just about everything in the Bible.

  16. orDover says:

    Oh my goodness! Could the art history degree that I’m working on actually be of use in the skeptical community? Cambodian art is far removed from my focus, but I did just take a course on Southeast Asian art, and from my less-than-expert but somewhat knowledgeable perspective, I would go with the “mythological creature” option. The Khmer were experts at rendering naturalistic animals, as can be seen in this relief, also from Angkor Wat: http://www.galenfrysinger.com/Photos/cambodia65.jpg
    I’d have to agree that if they meant to depict a dinosaur that they had seen with their own eyes they would have done a better job.

    It’s also important to remember that Angkor Wat is a Hindu temple and represents many of the Hindu epics, such as the Ramayan, which are full of mythological creatures. Here is another relief from the temple of the mythical bird Garuda: http://angkorblog.com/db1/00087/angkorblog.com/_uimages/GarudaandKrishna.jpg

    Gardua has a bird’s wings and beak, human arms, and lion-like feet. Are we supposed to believe that the Khmer actually saw a bird hybrid like this?

    That site claims that the Khmer were depicting the “stegosaurus” in a group with other real animals, such as water buffalo and “swans,” but I think that one of the animals they call a “swan” is actually the multi-headed naga serpent.

    Compare the relief just under the “stegosaurus” in this picture here: http://www.bible.ca/tracks/tracks-cambodia-don-with-stegosarus.jpg
    with these imagines of nagas:

    They have hooded heads and snouts, like in the relief carving.

    I also think it’s interesting to note that there is a demon under the “stegosaurus” and naga. Are we supposed to think that the Khmer also saw the demon, along with Garudas and dinosaurs?

    Another picture from the site can put the reliefs further into context:

    To the left are minor celestial beings that adore temple facades and serve a protective function. Nagas, demons, birds and monkeys (which, by the way, are anthropomorphized heavily in the Ramayan) are also protectors. I think it is safe to assume that the “stegosaurus” falls into the ranks of the protective mythological beings.

  17. verthandi says:

    I agree that the image is not a chameleon, however I do not think it is even modern animal. I have done some research and think that previous posts were made out of mere assumption and not in context.
    This was built as Hindu temple and Hinduism (like most religions) is renowned for elaborate symbolism. Bible.ca actually helped tremendously in discounting their own conclusions. It provided the context of the carvings, the other animals. The swan, buffalo, antelope, parrots, monkey (this one is more of a mystery, i couldn’t find who it was the mount for), lizard (which may be a crocodile), snake (which could be encircling each creature), mystery animals, and what i think is a peacock under is are all vahanas (deity vehicles)

    Kama: green parrot
    Kamakhya and Manasa: snake
    Kaumari: peacock
    Brahma: hamsa/goose/swan
    Saraswati: swan/peacock
    Vayu: antelope
    Yama: buffalo

    Varuna: makara

    Although I am far from an archaeologist it wasn’t a difficult topic to research, and although I could be wrong (I do not even know what the cravings mean, or why only a few animals are present) However, I think it is more plausible (or at least a good place to start) than just identifying the “out of place artifact.”

  18. Eximious Jones says:

    Speaking as an artist, I feel I should point out that artists of all stripes, past and present, have sought not to duplicate life literally but have chosen to depict their world in thousands of different, exaggerated and non-realistic ways. There are plenty of Angkor Wat figures that are completely wacky and out of proportion. Why should we expect THIS stegosaurus-like figure to be an accurate representation of anything?

    (Amusingly, when I clicked on the bible.ca link here on my work computer, our firewall blocked it as “hate speech”.)

  19. JustinWilson says:

    I’ve done as much reading and research as I’m going to on this. I think it’s a hoax. With all the foot-traffic that Angkor Wat gets every year, the sheer odds that Don Patton, whom has a sketchy young-earth creationist background would discover “evidence” supporting his views. This is a man that has discovered human and dinosaur tracks side-by-side. It seems this “Doctor” is out to create propaganda.

    The question remains, is this an animal or was this a legitimate depiction of an animal (rhino, chameleon) that was butchered in the name of “creation science.”

    I’m going with the latter based on the sketchy nature of the find.

  20. “On the lintel one can see a sort of lizard. This is, according to some, the legend, already represented at Angkor Wat, of Ravana taking the form of a chameleon in order to gain access to the ladies chamber in the palace of Indra.”

    from: http://www.theangkorguide.com/cgi-bin/MasterFrameReunion.cgi?http%3A//www.theangkorguide.com/text/part-two/angkorthom/bayon.htm

    OK – this is not a smoking gun. I could not find the picture in question with an archaeological explanation. But I found it intriguing that the religious legends portrayed at the Angkor temples include chameleons.

    Also – after looking at many more picture of chameleons my suspicion that this is the correct answer has increased. The head with the frill (or backward pointing horns) seems very diagnostic to me.

    I’ll keep digging.

  21. So many… *too* many variables. For all we know the sculptor snuck in a comic relief of his hated mother-in-law, depicted as a wild boar, chameleon, other lizard, whatever…

  22. Roy Niles says:

    Can the premature conclusion only become a fallacy in retrospect? And if the fallacy of redundancy is one cause of inadequacy, could a fallacy of inadequacy therefor be a precursor to redundancy? And is a rhetorical device an acceptable excuse for a non-sequitur?

  23. JustinWilson says:


    No possibility that 800 years ago the Indian Rhino had a greater range? Maybe the error is in thinking this has to be a lizard. Maybe the stegosauri has everyone scouring for some sort of lizard-link when it’s a mammal? (Credited – Gil @ Cryptomundo)

  24. John Conway says:

    I think you’re right that it’s a chameleon, or at least inspired by one. I don’t think the legs present a big problem, chameleons are well known for being able to walk in a more erect fashion than other lizards – their hip and shoulder anatomy is quite modified for the job.

  25. Roy Niles says:

    This thing appears to have the requisite 12 dorsal plates, or at least six pairs as seen from the side. It’s quite likely that it IS a folklore version of someone’s description of an ancient stegosaurus skeleton.
    (Or it could even be from a preserved petroglyph drawing of that skeleton.)
    The inaccuracies of the depiction would also suggest that it originated from a skeleton rather than any preserved specimen. And the remaining accuracies would suggest it’s not a chameleon, although there could well be a chameleon depicted in the encircling frieze.

    It doesn’t prove a damned thing except that humans have long had very effective ways to preserve memories from one generation to the next.

  26. massimo says:

    I think it is important to address the topics of representation and imagination in art here.

    Artists frequently limit or shape detail to maximize certain aesthetic possibilities inherent in their subject. To take some popular examples, think of Dali’s watches melting to display a sense of time, or Duchamps Cubist “Nude Descending a Staircase”. In the latter, the original figure (as described in the title) is fractured far beyond a clear taxonomic Human Being. Or take the number of fingers on each of The Simpsons characters’ hands. To produce a certain style and simplicity, Simpsons characters lack some fingers.

    Bearing this in mind, I think an argument that says this image (made by an artist whose representational choices are a mystery to us) is somehow not a Stegosaurus just because certain characteristics are absent or modified, is not very strong.

    One would have to presume that the artist is looking to represent a Stegosaurus in an anatomically correct manner, in order to refute the argument that the artist saw one by listing the anatomical differences between his piece and a true Stegosaurus model. Which is to say, we can’t presume the artist has not seen, or chose to represent, a Stegosaurus just because it does not look like the Stegosaurus that say, a scientist might insist on for their representational uses.

    Better to defer to the known age of the Stegosaurus I think. Thats sufficient really.

    Of course, much of the talk here also focuses on what possibilites there are for interpreting this piece based on whether the artist “saw” the Stegosaurus or not. This is unnecessary. For one thing, artists often employ this little known tool known as their “imagination”. Using this tool, it is possible that a person could represent an imaginary creature, that happens to look in some ways like a Stegosaurus. So the original authors argument by commonality is also weak.

    Though once again, the fact that Stegosaurus seems to have lived so long ago, seems sufficient to argue that the artist did not see one, and therefore could not directly represent one.

  27. massimo says:

    unless he saw and tried to represent a fossil of course…..;)

  28. leftbrain says:

    Steve –
    I think you are a little out of your mind w/ the chameleon thing. The tail curl is far more distinctive in the chameleon than the head elevation or tail spikes for the stegosaurus. I actually think the chameleon argument saps the blog entry of its validity as criticism, because its as much inference from personal motive as the creationist guy.
    Whether the plates are ornamental is pretty key.
    If not – I’d have to go with it being an interpretation of fossil remains over chameleon.
    It looks far less like a chameleon than a stegosaurus. Your arguments about the head size/orientation are flawed also in that heads tend to be exaggerated to appear larger in carvings/totems. Possibly some triceratops features thrown in – or features culturally representative of dragons, etc.

    This isn’t an altogether accurate analogy – because I know chameleons exist, and that stegosauruses did as well – but my first read of your post felt like “That so OBVIOUSLY isn’t the Loch ness monster – its Bigfoot!”

  29. mattdick says:

    This conclusion strikes me as so similar to Ray Comfort’s intelligently designed banana. It’s just anomaly hunting. Look around the natural world for anything edible that has kind of the same number of ridges as I have knuckles… kind of. Ignore peaches and pomegranites, but look at that banana*!

    Well this is the same thing — take one vague low-resolution image of a second-hand description of a rhinoceros and call it a dinosaur. Never mind that there are thousands or tens of thousands of ancient buildings in Southeast Asia without a single unambiguous image of a dinosaur, and tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of images of creatures that never existed.

    * Yes, I am aware of the fact that Comfort’s Worst Nightmare is even worse than I’ve described since the banana he used as an example is one of the great examples of human genetic engineering in history.

  30. leftbrain says:

    me again – looked at the originating site – to me, a good question is why did he cherry pick identifiable animals – then throw in the ‘stegosaurus’ and declare his argument made?
    Below the ‘stegosaurus’ (only seen in his cheesy ‘me and my stegosaurus’ portrait) is a really wonky looking critter… like the head of some horse in flames. Other carvings that he says are swans look nothing like each other – and nothing like swans (I’d grant that one is a heron or ibis or something – but not a swan).
    I’d wager that there are a whole bunch of animals on there nobody can identify. I’d give my left arm if one was the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

    I think the plates – while similar to some of the ornamental elements in some pictures we can see – are too deliberately defined in the ‘steg’ vignette to be considered separate from the animal.

    Occam’s Razor is cutting towards ‘mythological creature inspired by fossil evidence’ for me. Like you said – there may well be some dude who would tell us ‘Oh yeah – that’s the thunder turtle! They are a dime a dozen out there! Used to eat virgins, apparently.’

  31. Roy Niles says:

    I still like the idea of being able to point out that even if the thing was inspired by an actual animal, it’s idiotic to argue that the inspiration could only have come from seeing such an animal meandering in the vicinity of a human or two. After all it’s the logical foundation of their belief system that has the most vulnerability.

    You can demonstrate their ineptitude here much easier than the shakiness of their observations. Tell the magician that the rabbit isn’t real, and the mystery will still remain. Expose the mechanism instead of the props, and the mystery dissolves.

    Now if we could only somehow dissolve the magician.

  32. Roy Niles says:

    OK, I shouldn’t have said it’s quite likely, etc. Just that there’s a possibility it’s a bit of folklorica. It bothers me there’s no other like it there, and yet that makes it all the more significant. Maybe there was some trepidation in depicting it more than once!

  33. Roy Niles says:

    I note there are other creationist sites that actually talk about petroglyphic portrayals of animals looking a lot like dinosaurs, including the stegosaurus. But on the http://www.bible.ca site, the author goes into great detail about how the sculptor must have actually seen the living animal. He seemingly discussed all this with college students, etc., none of which brought up the possibility that some other depiction might have been the source. The complete absence of any reference to the petroglyphs in question seems quite deliberate, when those same items were used on other sites to prove other humans had also seen such animals.

    In my business I’ve learned what people don’t say when they should do is often more telling than what they do say when they shouldn’t.

  34. leftbrain – I disagree.

    – the fossil stegosaurus hypothesis is highly unlikely. There is no evidence that 14th century or earlier Cambodians were reconstructing any fossils, let alone a nearly complete stegosaurus.

    – I have already admitted that the chameleon hypothesis is imperfect and speculative – it’s just much better than stegosaurus

    – I think it is highly likely that we require archaeological/artistic knowledge in order to properly interpret the image. The plates could be decoration, it can be a mythical creature (kind of like what a unicorn or pegasus is to a horse), it can be some other animal species no one has identified yet (or an extinct species)

    – as others have pointed out – there are purely mythical creatures depicted there as well. The descriptions I read indicated that the decorations on the temple were all highly symbolic. Those animals/demons etc. are not random – each one means something.

    – I still put my nickel down on a stylized chameleon. But I acknowledge this is mostly a guess.

  35. leftbrain says:

    Several of your points of disagreement are in agreement with my own thoughts on the matter – so must have communicated them unclearly.

    Saying that the mythological option must have derived from fossil evidence of a stegosaurus (in particular) is a bad call on my part. I’m not familiar with the range of fossils (let alone intact fossils) that the area may have presented to the culture.

    Failing to cite the differences in the tail, legs, and feet of the chameleon (while including the bumps on the back don’t even bear a passing resemblance) is unreasonable while citing the differences between the stegosaurus anatomy – especially the chameleon’s tale which strikes me as one of its defining characteristics. As has been said, it could be depicting another similar lizard. More thorough knowledge of the vahanas could clear this up.

    The arrogance of the article to say ‘this is a stegosaurus’ (it goes on to say ‘this is a swan’ about a different carving- when it very obviously is not, noting the completely incongruent beak and legs) is the most reasonable criticism – countering a bad guess with a far fetched guess makes your critique seem sloppy to me.

    The incomplete representation of the carvings bothers me a lot – to show animals he feels he can identify and one’s he guesses at, then leave out ones that show potentially unknown animals, mythological animals, and deities seems to be a ‘sin of omission’.

    I also think he’s right about children looking at it and saying it is a stegosaurus, but I think that’s why we don’t look to children’s impressions to define findings archeology or paleontology.

  36. When I wrote: “Of course, every argument you can bring to bear to say that the picture is not a good fit to a chameleon applies even more to the stegosaurus hypothesis.” that was meant to acknowledge the differences, although I did not enumerate them.

    I agree with the tail, but that could easily be explained as their not being enough room in the composition for the tail. In any case, I assumed the picture was stylized. Unless someone can find a species that fits all the details – it has to be a highly stylized something, or a mythical creature.

  37. mattdick says:

    leftbrain, you’re right. Here is the quote: “The fact that the average Jr. High student immediately identifies the sculpture as a Stegosaurus is considered of no consequence.”


    My profession is computer science — a *much* simpler, more straightforward, more intuitive “science” than paleontology or archeology. If I made decisions based on my what the average Jr. High student thought, I’d have a very short career.

  38. leftbrain says:

    “When I wrote: “Of course, every argument you can bring to bear to say that the picture is not a good fit to a chameleon applies even more to the stegosaurus hypothesis.” that was meant to acknowledge the differences, although I did not enumerate them.”

    I think I see. Somehow I read this as a comparison of the carving accuracy rather than ‘millions of years extinct’ vs. ‘common native animal’ – which does make argument favor the native animal.

  39. Roy Niles says:

    Amazing how you all line up to support the effort to deny the poor creationist bastard any possibility that the mythical creature could have in any way been inspired by any recognition of other such depictions by anyone in that culture, which was advanced enough to construct those temples and was connected to trade routes that had access to other cultures and traded ornamental goods with in many cases images conceivably inspired by fossil evidence that many would have been extremely curious about and that we all should know were the inspirations for the birth of many of the creation myths which often were remarkably similar to those where there seem to have never been contacts between the tribes and where it has been speculated (by Jungian types so of course that is of no account) that these ancient fossil remains have become prototypes in our very brains as symbols of objects to automatically fear and revere but nevertheless there could never have been anyone anywhere who had seen fossil remains that would have in any way enabled that sighting to find it’s way into any tales, myths, cave art, etc. and especially not when anyone that was informed of the sighting would be told laughingly that all they had seen had to be some sort of chameleon, beyond any fallaciously inspired doubt.

    Jesus, pec, the emperor really does lack the requisite items of clothing!

  40. Larry Coon says:

    The three things that came to mind when I read Steve’s article were:

    1. This sculpture no more implies that the sculptor saw a living specimen of this animal than does my daughter drawing a unicorn imply that living unicorns exist. Huge unstated (I think it was unstated) premise.

    2. Let’s accept the premise that the sculptor really did see a living stegosaurus, and that science is wrong about dating, time, and the process of fossilization. You’d expect to find stegosaurus fossils in the same general area as reported sightings, wouldn’t you? As far as I know, stegosaurus fossils are limited to western North America, with a few found in Europe.

    3.I bet there is some correlation between how commonly we find artistic renderings of animals and whether those animals were actually seen. Lions? Tigers? Bears? Oh my…we find sculptures, paintings, etc., all over the world. But dinosaurs? As far as I know, this is the only (or one of the few) that can even be argued for, and even then it’s a pretty weak argument. You’d think that if dinosaurs were really walking around, there’d be a hell of a lot more artistic evidence.

  41. Roy Niles says:

    Of course no-one has ever seen a living stegosaurus. But apparently no-one has ever seen their fossil remains except those who were immediately killed and burned as emissaries from the devil when they revealed that such sightings had remained in their primitive little uncurious cranial apparatus. Or in any case not until those who swore to an adaptation of the skull and bones ethical code were granted leave as members of the science tribe to talk about these sightings in ways that didn’t conflict with the acceptable dogma as outlined in their initiation ritual.

  42. Roy – please don’t confuse statements to the effect that “there is no evidence that” with your characterization – “deny any possibility.”

    It is not impossible that fossil dinosaurs inspired mythology. I am just not aware of any evidence that 14th century Cambodians had ever seen a fossil dinosaur, or a stegosaurus in particular. Or that anyone anywhere had.

    The known history is that the first dinosaur fossil was found in 1858 (http://www.levins.com/dinosaur.shtml). Perhaps giant bones were discovered earlier – but no reconstructed into near complete specimens

    Keep in mind a few things:

    – extracting fossils is tedious skilled work, as is reconstructing them. This science simply did not exist in the 14th century.

    – if ancient cultures found dinosaur bones, then where are they? We have many artifacts from ancient cultures, the absence of a single dinosaur fossil is significant (of course, the absence of evidence is never conclusive).

    So I maintain there is no evidence, and the hypothesis is highly implausible. No one is making absolute statements.

  43. leftbrain says:

    Roy – I don’t think you’ve done a good job of convincing anyone that its fallacious to doubt that a stegosaurus modeled for an 800 yr. old carving. Citing and simultaneously dismissing psychiatrists notwithstanding.
    The ‘poor creationist bastard’ made no claims about the carving having been inspired by anything other than a stegosaurus (who perhaps worked to quarry the rocks of the temple, with a guy sitting on its back in a box, until the foreman pulled a bird’s tail feathers so it squawked loudly, indicating it was time for brontoburgers).

  44. Roy Niles says:

    Leftbrain: The fallacy (in my view anyway) was in the way arguments were made to truthify the assumption that there was no way in hell this item depicted anything that was inspired by even any memory of any other depiction of a stegosaurus.

    Of course no stegosaurus ever sat for any artist anywhere, nor can you find anything I’ve written that said otherwise.
    if I failed to rid my prose of even the slightest inference that was so, then mea culpa.

    Now I do realize that I resorted to the fallacy of hyperbole in prying out some admission to the remote possibility of a stegosaurus inspired boogie animal, but hey, a tool is a tool. (Like tools don’t kill, it’s only people with tools.)

    As to no evidence ancients had ever seen a dinosaur fossil, that requires a definition of evidence that would have wiped out life itself if it had to take time to make such a fine distinction before fleeing instead of fighting. There are artifacts that at least hint that someone somewhere had seen something resembling at least the fossilized remains of more than one type of dinosaur.

    And I dismissed those psychiatrists with a tinge of regret -considering the good and even great work done before they descended to a practice akin to exorcism in dealing with that great shadow that was discovered to be cause of all our ills.

    Setting some skeptics loose on the CAM versions of psychiatry might be something to consider (forgetting of course that the suggestion came from someone lacking in the skills for appropriate inference.)

  45. petrucio says:

    Roy – that was without a doubt, the longest sentence I’ve ever read with no periods or commas (6 posts before). I had to read it twice to make sure you were not joking.

  46. Roy Niles says:

    It would have been longer but I was fast approaching the limits of my short term memory.

  47. jonny_eh says:

    It’s a jackal!

    (Turn your volume down before clicking the link)

  48. jeffthefish says:

    I haven’t read all the comments, but I did a Ctrl+F and it doesn’t look like it’s been mentioned: a better fitting chameleon would be Jackson’s Chameleon, Chamaeleo jacksonii. It has horns.

  49. leftbrain says:

    I think it may well be a jackal.

  50. mattdick says:

    Ultimately for me, I think regardless of the head size, it looks like a Stegosaurus. A *lot* like one. Remarkably reminiscent of one.

    But, and here is the critical difference between me and bible.ca, that proves nothing. In fact it doesn’t even imply much of anything.

  51. Matt Gubser says:

    “if ancient cultures found dinosaur bones, then where are they? We have many artifacts from ancient cultures, the absence of a single dinosaur fossil is significant (of course, the absence of evidence is never conclusive).”

    Adrienne Mayor presented her case for Greco-Roman paleontology being a foundation for many mythological creatures in her book “The First Fossil Hunters.” Haven’t read it myself, but I do remember seeing an interview regarding the book.

  52. wereyouthere says:

    It looks very much like a stegasaurus to me.

    Is a chameleon even native to Cambodia?
    The only thing on the chameleon that looks like the drawing of the stegasaurus is the head. The plates on the back are obviously different. The tail curves around inward.
    As for the slight lack of accuracy of the stone image, I would attribute that to the fact that anyone seeing one would probably be running in fright and miss minor details such as the spikes on the tail. While this giant creature is running through the underbrush the spikes may not have been visible.

    It is not incredible to think that dinosaurs were around a thousand years ago. Loch Ness stories have been around for hundreds of years despite the fact that an old man confessed that his film from the 1930’s was not real. Dragons are found all over the world in unconnected cultures on many continents.

    There are drawings and figurines of dinosaurs by ancient people.
    There is enough evidence to believe that the Earth is much younger than the billions of yeas old as so many believe. And it is faith to believe in such things, because no one living on Earth was there.
    The proximity of the Sun and the Moon suggest that the Earth is between 6000-10,000 years old. The population of the Earth is too small, the fossil evidence is too small to support millions of years. Carbon dating is only accurate to a maximum 50,000 years.

    I’m just trying to encourage people not to be such followers and to consider an alternative to the old Earth view.

  53. llewelly says:

    Steven Novella:

    if ancient cultures found dinosaur bones, then where are they? We have many artifacts from ancient cultures, the absence of a single dinosaur fossil is significant (of course, the absence of evidence is never conclusive).

    Review of First Fossil Hunters , which Mat Gubser mentioned.
    (I don’t think the carving discussed here has anything to do with ancients finding fossils, but I thought I’d mention this book review.)

  54. RyanG says:

    Don’t everybody shoot me, but don’t you think it does look more like the stegosaurus than all those chameleons? I mean, I’m just sayin’.

    I like the “photo” of the real stegosaurus. So life-like, it makes it easy to distinguish the real stegosaurus from the fakes. 🙂

  55. mikelaughs says:

    My favorite quote from the comments in this post:

    “Also, we are discussing this largely in ignorance”

    I do have a few open ended questions to ponder…

    1. Are most or all of the carvings of animals on the stones in this location actual animals, or mythical? This may help answer the question of the artist’s intent.

    2. If one looks at the incredible variety of fossils already found and considers that there are likely many more variations not yet discovered, including the ones that would presumably go “in-between” those already known, is it difficult to consider that this just may be a depiction of a dinosaur that truly once was?

    3. is there another type of animal that this more closely resembles than a dinosaur? Please don’t say chameleon, honestly. Are we trying to shoehorn another type of animal into this because it doesn’t fit into what we think we know? Maybe it’s best to study it and let the facts and educated application of logic stand alone, without bias or preconceived ideas about what is or isn’t possible.

    4. Is this the only, isolated example of a possible dinosaur on an ancient artifact? Is there a body of evidence or just a single anomaly?

    5. Is there history of ancient civilizations exhuming skeletal remains, studying them, and reconstructing possible living forms based on their research? Or is this, from what we know, a practice confined to the modern era?

    6. Artistic license is and has always been practiced, in varying degrees, across cultures and regions. The work doesn’t have to be anatomically correct to be considered to represent something real. If it is representational art, it should be recognizable, and would likely follow the general theme of the rest of the works on these walls in terms of being real or abstract, actual or mythical, etc. If we all take off the bias blinders and look at the carving, I would hope we could agree that (almost) none of us, at least, sees a chameleon.

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