The Hongshan Pig Dragons

Ceratopsid skeletonYou may have heard of a new baby ceratopsid skeleton from Alberta, Canada. It’s quite well preserved, is about 70 million years old, and is the smallest skeleton from this group of dinosaurs found. Curiously Brian Thomas turns this into a “dragons were dinosaurs” story, and writes Dinosaur Youngster Looks Like Dragon Figurines. As usual with this topic – in which a creationist claims that a particular artefact or artistic depiction means that its ancient creator saw a real live dinosaur (therefore the Earth is 6,000 years old) – it’s basically impossible to know what the true origin of the image was, but I feel that I can show that there are enough holes in Brian Thomas’ story to demonstrate that his is not the correct explanation.

But before we get to that it’s time for a quotemine alert:

Juvenile dinosaurs are rare enough, but to find a three-year-old almost completely intact specimen—only its front legs are missing—is so rare that it may be one of a kind. [Phil] Currie told LiveScience, “The big ones just preserve better.” Nobody is quite sure why.

The LiveScience article that is Thomas’ sole citation in his post, and from which both he and I have poached the above fossil image (under fair use, of course), actually says:

“The big ones just preserve better: They don’t get eaten, they don’t get destroyed by animals,” said study co-author Philip Currie, a paleobiologist at the University of Alberta. “You always hope you’re going to find something small and that it will turn out to be a dinosaur.”

While I doubt anyone knows for certain, it’s not the mystery Thomas is making it out to be. But the explanations offered don’t jive all that well with Noah’s Flood, which shouldn’t let those factors influence what survives nearly as much, and so it comes as no surprise that they are omitted and the subject declared an unknown. Also, in addition to the forelimbs being missing the skeleton has also lost the tip of its tail, but that seems to be a constant for dinosaur skeletons.

Returning to the issue at hand, Thomas presents a series of (alleged – see below) 4,000 year old Hongshan pig dragon figurines that he claims look to varying degrees like the fossil. I’ll not embed them here, but you can go to the images directly with this link. You have to admit that the similarities between the gross morphology of the fossil and the first image are striking, particularly in the alignment of the head frills . But this should be your first clue that something is seriously amiss here.

You see, the whole core of Thomas’ argument is that the figurine is an image of an animal seen in life. But the fossil is dead – very dead – and so the animal is in a state of rigour mortis. This is to say that when it died its muscles contracted in weird ways, distorting the corpse into a shape very different to anything that it may have been in while alive. In short, if the dinosaur looks very similar to the figurine in death then it was probably quite different in life.

I’d like to take a look at Thomas’ four images. His first is captioned “jade figurine from the Neolithic Hongshan culture, about 4,000 years old,” and is credited to Vance Nelson of the creationist Untold Secrets of Planet Earth website. Interestingly this site features a lone “review” on the side of some of its pages:

“I just finished reading Dire Dragons. It was absolutely fantastic. Congratulations on a fine work. I wish every Christian would read it, and I wish I could convert my current Dinosaur talk for ICR into a presentation version of your book.”

Brian Thomas, MS
Science Writer
Institute for Creation Research

Despite this glowing recommendation Thomas was apparently unable to secure a copy of the image without an ugly watermark, and I can’t actually find the picture on Nelson’s site at all.

The remaining three pictures are credited to Dave Woetzel of the equally creationist Genesis Park site – both seem to be dedicated to the dinosaur dragon argument – and the first and third of these are said by Thomas to be of a pig and a boar respectively. He says that these show that the Hongshan knew what a pig looked like if they wanted to carve one:

Auction houses sell the dinosaur-like carvings as “pig-dragons” because of the pig-like noses on some of the figurines. But some Hongshan figurines are actually pigs, clearly showing that the carvers knew their subject matter.

As it happens I can find a listing on ebay for a dog that looks quite like his pig, which is the closest I could find to any of Thomas’ four images.

The middle picture, on the other hand, is captioned “ceratopsin ‘pig-dragon’ carved in rare bloodstone looks more like a ceratopsin dinosaur than a pig.” This strange wording makes it look like he’s assuming his conclusion in the premise, and indeed aside from the frill I can’t see the similarity with this one at all. I’m also not sure if that’s bloodstone, but then I’m no good at identifying minerals.

Pig dragonMoving along, the Genesis Park webpage on which you can find those three images and others, says when talking about another of a similar kind:

It seems that evidence against the prevailing paradigm of naturalistic origin was selected against. It is buried alive by the scientific establishment. As [creationist Dr. Jack] Cuozzo says, this is natural selection in the most literal sense!

In this case the scientific conspiracy seems to be larger than even they could have imagined. Save for the handful of artefacts in safe creationist possession every one of the Hongshan pig dragons have been stolen and replaced, as if the originals were never there. The new Hongshan dragons safely look nothing like dinosaurs, and the children of Lucifer can breathe a sigh of relief that their fortress of lies stands another day.

C-shaped jade dragonFor those of us less inclined to believe such rubbish, however, it would appear that real Hongshan pig dragons really do look very different to the figurines Thomas is presenting to us. The real artefacts, as illustrated to some extent by the pictures at right (see also google images), are quite abstract. They are bent into a C shape and lack limbs entirely. Indeed, looking through this long list of photos of Hongshan jade artefacts I see an awful lot of these dragons and not a single item that resembles what Thomas offers.

At very least it would appear that the figurines that the creationists think are pig dragons are mis-labled. But they are also quite likely to be frauds of some manner as well. A guide to identifying fake Chinese jade by Eric J. Hoffman offers that:

When the principal value of a jade lies in its age, the collector can get into trouble. Many experts estimate that 95% to 99% of the “antique jades” on the market today are modern reproductions.

And:

Jades from the Hongshan and Liangzhu periods (roughly 4000 to 6000 years ago), because of their small size and simple motifs, are widely faked. However, there have been copies of styles as recent as Qing dynasty (1644–1911).

It is unfortunately very difficult to identify these “modern reproductions,” and without anything else to compare them to it becomes even harder.

The most charitable explanation is that even if the artefacts presented are really just modern reproductions of non-Hongshan figurines this still implies that there are some old dragon figurines somewhere that look like dinosaurs, and isn’t that a problem? But at the other extreme these could well be completely modern figurines constructed with reproductions of ceratopsins in mind and sold to the credulous as ancient artefacts. With this issue up in the air there’s only so far you can go in claiming that the figurines prove that their makers saw a dinosaur.

There are other reasons why Thomas’ story doesn’t stack up anywhere near as neatly as he supposes. According to modern creationists like Thomas upon the Ark were representatives of each “kind” of animals, including dinosaurs, which after the flood diversified substantially. The fossil described above would have been a pre-flood animal killed in the flood, but the Hongshan artists would have seen a post-flood dinosaur. Why should they be even remotely similar?

My explanation, assuming that the figurines are real, is that any similarity between this specific fossil and the purported pig dragons is complete coincidence. More generally, however, I cannot rule out the possibility that they may have been influenced by fossils of real dinosaurs in the area. As usual, Thomas takes a dim view of this idea:

Some of their ancient depictions are difficult to identify, but others are plain to see. The dragon figurines don’t resemble any standard zoo animal alive today, and one wonders how the carvers could have carved the animal look-alikes without looking at the live animal.

Brian Thomas doesn’t seem to think that people can imagine things, or at least that they could coincidentally sometimes look kinda like something that really existed once over the hundreds of millions of years that macroscopic life has existed on Earth. Presumably he also thinks that unicorns are real, and that all the representations of non-Abrahamic gods come from real divine appearances.

Presumably, ancient Chinese artists did not have access to fossils in Canada or even Mongolia where paleontologists found protoceratops fossils in the mid-20th century, nor would one expect the artists to have developed the expertise to reconstruct whole animals from mere skeletal fragments.

The modern country of Mongolia basically neighbours the area inhabited by the Hongshan, and they could conceivably have once had fossils of their own to study. Maybe some were as good as this Canadian one, which Thomas seems content to declare looks exactly like his figurines without embarking on a detailed scientific reconstruction (they don’t look that similar, it might be added). But there’s more:

Plus there’s the question of motivation. Why would they portray skeletal remains as a living animal?

Indeed – who would do that? Why would a culture spend it’s time digging fossils out of the ground and invest energy investigating what they looked like when alive? What kind of depraved monster would actually go so far as to create a likeness – a physical representation – of a long dead creature?

I realise that this is a controversial claim to make, and that we can have no way of knowing whether or not it’s true, but maybe – just maybe – they were just like us.


This has been a long and meandering post, so to summarise:

  • The fossil looks kinda like the figurines in death, but probably looked quite different in life.
  • The figurines don’t seem to be Hongshan pig dragons at all, and could well be complete frauds. But it is unclear whether this is merely incidental or utterly fatal to the argument. Your average ancient Chinese jade artefact is a fake, but could still be fakes of a real thing.
  • It’s basically impossible, even in the young Earth creationist view, for the Hongshan to have ever seen this specific type of ceratopsid.
  • Thomas’ arguments against the idea that they may have instead seen a ceratopsid fossil of their own and based their images on that are laughable.

While not already mentioned, no discussion of the issue of whether modern dinosaurs would prove a young Earth is complete without mentioning that finding a living dinosaur today would not prove that all dinosaurs lived recently. It would merely mean that they aren’t extinct – and they aren’t, as birds are a type of dinosaur. Another type is unlikely to have survived without leaving evidence until now, but it’s not impossible.

As you can see however, while it’s relatively easy to poke holes in Thomas’ claims it’s much harder to establish what really inspired the figurines. Has anyone reading had experience with Hongshan pig dragons, or better yet knows what the figurines really are? How do you tell a real artefact from a fraud with only a picture? And what else have I missed?

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5 thoughts on “The Hongshan Pig Dragons

  1. it’s time for a quotemine alert

    Oh, good! There is some possibility of reviving the Talk Origins Quote Mine Project (particularly aimed at the ones in Stephen Meyer’s Darwin’s Doubt) and, if I can get past some vexing personal problems in the meantime, I’ll try to include this one as well. You can always send me examples at johnpieret AT optonline DOT net. Even if the TO QMP plans don’t work out, I’ll post the juicy ones at my personal blog.

    • I’ll see what I can find. Frank Sherwin has been writing a lot of Acts & Facts articles which seem to be composed entirely of unrefined ore, including most recently this one on sharks. Unfortunately, to figure out the context you’d need access to Sherwin’s collection of textbooks, so that might be a bit difficult.

    • The article by Sherwin on sharks is rich. Despite many things uncertain about shark evolution, there is plenty of evidence that they like other animals did evolve (the oldest sharks are not the same as modern ones). It’s also telling that Sherwin ignores a huge problem that sharks present for his views. Clearly sharks are obligatory _predators_. Their whole anatomy is adapted for sensing, catching and eating other animals, This blows out of the water the common YEC claim that all animals were originally vegetarians. The same goes for many other obligatory predators, such as spiders, scorpions, poisonous snakes, etc. In many cases the whose anatomies, physiologies, and behaviors of these animals make no sense except as predatory carnivores. What were spiders originally doing with their fangs and webs, subduing and kumquats? What was a rattlesnake rattle for, to warn approaching celery stalks? Suggesting God modified the animals miraculously after the fall makes no sense, since again, it would require practically an entire re-creation, and even YECs say creation was finished on say six. They can hardly appeal to “micro-evolution,” since suddenly turning some plant-eating fish into a shark or a vegetarian arthropod into a scorpion is what, after the fall would require far more dramatic and rapid evolution than any “evolutionist” allows. Does anyone know of any YEC who has seriously addressed this problem? For more discussion of it in view of another problem YECs largely neglect (the many problems with their claim that there was no physical death before the Fall), see:
      http://paleo.cc/ce/nodeath.htm

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