But Where is the Thagomizer?

Khmer "Stegosaurus"The Khmer Empire-era Cambodian city of Mahendraparvata has recently been mapped with the aid of a technology known as “lidar” – effectively radar with lasers, hence the name. Today Brian Thomas has an article on the discovery called Jungle-Covered Ruins May Hold Surprising Hints. “Why?” you could reasonably ask, “and hints of what exactly?”

So far as I can tell, young Earth creationists care about the Khmer Empire for one reason and one reason only: the temple of Ta Prohm, located near the more famous Angkor Wat and constructed several hundred years after Mahendraparvata, contains on its walls a carving of what they claim is a stegosaurus, supposedly drawn from life. Mr Thomas says:

Dinosaur carvings, sculptures, and paintings within ancient ruins confront the view that dinosaurs lived and died millions of years before man. But they are just what one would expect within the context of biblical history. Genesis says that God created man and animals, including dinosaurs, on the same day of creation week.

His article boils down to suggesting that there might be – might be – similar carvings waiting to be uncovered at Mahendraparvata. This seems to me to be unlikely, to say the least. Probably the best resource on this subject is Glen Kuban’s article, Stegosaurus Carving on a Cambodian Temple?, and I direct you there for more general information. With that in mind, let’s look at some of the holes in Brian’s story specifically. First, the context of the carving:

Parrot, swan, water buffalo, and monkey carvings adorn the same structure, showing the ancient artist’s expertise at reproducing known animals.

On the other hand, two images down we have something that does not seem to be a real animal at all: it does not seem unreasonable to infer that the artist was perfectly capable using his imagination to make things up also. One criticism of the idea that the stegosaurus, if that is truly what it is, was drawn from life is that it could also have been based off of fossils. Thomas claims:

The nearest stegosaur fossils come from faraway China. It is therefore very unlikely that the ancients carved a stegosaur likeness based on fossils.

Brian seems unaware that during the height of the Khmer Empire China was not so much a “faraway” land as a neighbouring country, and he also severely underestimates the ability of pre-modern people to move around, explore, and share cultural knowledge.

Thomas also claims that the carving is an “anatomically-correct rendering” – not in the euphemistic sense, I must add. This is brazenly ignores the striking differences between the image and an actual stegosaurus. The sole feature that invites the dinosaur conclusion is the presence of what appears to be the distinctive plates of the stegosaurus running down its back, but they could also be a floral background – if they were removed the animal would not look dinosaurian in the slightest. If they are stegosaurus plates, however, then they are highly stylised and not at all accurate (there should be more of them, for one).

The biggest omission from the depiction, meanwhile, is the spiked tail – the thagomizer (“named for the late Thag Simmons”). For an artist that is supposedly an expert “at reproducing known animals” drawing an “anatomically-correct rendering” this is quite odd. Those tails are almost as recognisable as the plates and if present would go a long way to showing that this wasn’t supposed to be another spiny-backed animal. A number of other anatomical discrepancies also exist, such as the horns on the back of the animals head, the size and shape of the head, and the relative lengths of the legs.

More sceptical articles on this carving often conclude by trotting out the line that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” or similar. Personally I think this goes too far: extraordinary claims require evidence, and this one doesn’t even have much of the non-extraordinary kind – there are just too many other plausible explanations even if precisely which is correct is not certain. Thomas concludes:

The next task for archaeologists will involve carefully removing the covering jungle from Mahendraparvata’s ancient stone walls. Erected centuries before Angkor Wat, will its temple carvings reveal more dinosaur-looking creatures? And if so, will secular researchers choose to show findings that challenge their basic beliefs, or will they suppress evidence as they cling to secularized history?

Once again, Brian equates the sceptical evaluation of a dubious claim with the suppression of evidence, which naturally leads me to wondering what science would look like in a creationist-dominated world – but that’s a (hopefully speculative) topic for another day.

18 thoughts on “But Where is the Thagomizer?

  1. Note that the body and tail are mammalian in appearance — and head is way too big for a stegosaurus, and the tail way too small (spikes or no spikes). Somewhere recently I saw a good analysis of this where they claimed it was a Sumatran rhino.

  2. Glen Kuban here. Thanks for mentioning my analysis of this case, which is part of my Paluxy website at :http:/paleo.cc/paluxy.htm. I agree with everything you wrote, but think you were a little soft on one point: the dorsal lobes. Not only is there no compelling reason to regard them as stegosaur plates, there is strong evidence that they are not stegosaur plates. Besides the differences from real stegosaur plates, virtually identical lobes (evidently representing decorative, floral flourishes) occur on and around many other animal carvings at the temple, including a buffalo and bird, which obviously did not have dorsal plates. And once one discounts the alleged back plates, there is nothing very stegosaur like about the carving. Thanks.

    • Yeah, I had been hoping that they’d pick that up from your article and didn’t want to repeat too much of it. 🙂

      What we really need are more and better photos of other carvings from the temple: the other pictures of floral flourishes that I’ve seen are not as obvious as in this example, but that seems to be more because of the poor quality of the photos than because they’re different things.

  3. I find it interesting that a culture based on 2000 year old mythology would latch on to some one else’s mythological creature, as support for their own myth. Maybe it represents a real animal, maybe it is just a fabrication of a myth, or just an artists expression.

    Then add in the fact that many of the other carvings have similar structures in them. That is a clear case of evidence exclusion, which doesn’t surprise me, considering the source of the wild claims. To boldly claim this carving supports Genesis, or ID, to me represents a desperate act of clinging to a life ring as the ship goes down. At least the crews at ICR, AIG, and the DI, will never be accused of being capable of rational thought.

    …and yes, we need to see more of these carvings.

  4. I looked around for todays Stegosaurus drawings and found the following.


    The Carving on a Cambodian Temple was not so different from this. The carving on that temple was for decoration.

    By any meanigful comparision, will say that the guy who made the carvings knew Stegosaurus.

    Any web-search for drawings on Stegosaurus, has so many variation. People meanigfully understand them all as Stegosaurus.

    • Rolland, the lobes on the back of the carved image are very likely decorative flourishes like those on many other Temple images, and without them, the animal looks more like a rhino than a stegosaur. No stegosaur has ears, and the thagomizer (one of the key features of a stegosaur) are missing. If you haven’t yet read my article explaining other reasons for doubting that the image was meant to depict a segosaur, please see: http://www.paleo.cc/paluxy/stegosaur-claim.htm

    • I forgot to mention, by your reasoning, whoever drew the cartoon baby stegosaurs must have seen a real one. As I pointed out in the article, even if the temple carving was meant to depict a stegosaur (and that is highly unlikely for reasons already explained), it could have been based on a fossil skeleton rather than a live animal. Stegosaurs are known from the bordering country of China.

    • Is there any history that from fossils real-life animals were constructed in those good old days of the temple construction?

    • Roland, no, there is no specific history known of that; however, it’s still more likely than the idea that stegosaurs were running around Cambodia in historical times. Again, the most likely explanation is that it’s a rhino or cameleon with decorative flourishes on the back, just like many of the other carvings on the Temple. And as my article pointed out, even if some non-avian dinosaurs did survive into modern times it would do nothing to disprove evolution. What young earth creationists need is not ancient animals surviving into modern times, but humans or other large modern mammals appearing in Mesozoic or Paleozoic rocks. Not a single verified case of that has been found, even tho by YEC models, untold millions should be found, since supposedly all animals were living at the same time before Noah’s Flood. .

    • Because the back is the only place they’d comfortably fit. Most other animal carvings also don’t have them surrounding their whole bodies–just where there is some extra space. Even on the stegosaur section, similar flourishes occur on the circle around it, and outside the circle. It looks like these artists put floral flourishes almost anywhere there was some space for them. Let me guess, you’re a young earth creationist, right? But even most creationists haven’t made strong claims about this carving, except for a few disreputable individuals (mostly Patton, Baugh, and associates). If you want to join these guys, be my guest. ICR has weakly encouraged the stegosaur claims, but they also once promoted the Paluxy “man tracks” for years, which they now largely disavow.

    • If you see the other decorative floral carvings of this refered carvings, the carvings on the interested back is so different from others.

      Let me be any-ist. But, rejection of such observation begs evidence.

    • What do you mean “if you see”? I and everyone else can see them on many of the carvings, and they vary somewhat in size, shape, and positions. It’s also possible someone altered them a little to make them look a little more plate like. In any case, anatomically the rest of the animal is not very close to a stegosaur, with the head way to big, the lack of thagamizer, the ears or horns that stegosaurs do not have, and others described in my article. So you don’t want to say whether you are a creationist? Do you know of any scientific or even major creationist group that feels this is strong evidence for YECism or that a tight case can be made for the artist seeing a stegosaur? How do you deal with things like the ears/horns oh the head?

    • I am not saying this is strong evidence or light evidence. Just a denial of others views (such as this could be Stegosaurus) does not stand correct.

      To fit your observation, you claim even “someone altered them a little to make them look a little more plate like”.

      Did you notice the tail, it is neither Rhino’s, Chameleon.

    • Roland, I did not “claim” someone altered the lobes, I said it was a possibility. Have you ever heard the saying that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. The idea that the carver saw a live stegosaur is an extraordinary claims, and since there are several plausible alternate explanations, most people are properly skeptical. I also never said it was i_mpossible_ to be a stegosaur, just that in view of the evidence, it’s very unlikely. Even many creationists agree. You say the tail is not of a rhino or chameleon, but it looks even less like a stegosaur tail (lacking the thagomizers), so your tail argument is at best moot. In fact, the animal does not appear to be a precise and accurate rendering of any known creature, so the question is, what is more plausible, that it’s a stylized carving or a modern animal with decorative features like many others around the temple, or that live stegosaurs were running around Cambodia in historical times. If you think it’s the latter, you’re one of the few.


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