Today we point our skeptical eye at the jungles of the Dark Continent, and other remote hideaways throughout the world, where tales tell that living relics from the past still walk among us: the dinosaurs. From Mokele Mbembe, the alleged sauropod of the Congo; to the Ropen, said to be a pterosaur ruling the skies of Papua New Guinea; to the idea that plesiosaurs are the lake monsters of Loch Ness, Ogopogo, and others; the reports come from all over. You'd think these stories would be on the decline. As humans spread out into the farthest reaches of our planet and explore more, you'd expect the stories to fade as nothing is found. However, they're actually on the rise, due to promotional efforts by the relatively new Young Earth Creationism movement intent on proving that dinosaurs lived so recently that they coexisted with humans, and may even survive today.
But all of that aside, this was an episode I was pretty excited to do, because it's really fun to examine evidence of something so interesting as living dinosaurs. But sadly, I was immediately disappointed. Dig as much as I could, I found that there is no solid evidence for almost any of these animals. There are tremendous volumes of anecdotal stories, nearly all reported by impassioned cryptozoologists, and nearly all based on interviews of native people: secondhand reports of secondhand reports.
But surely these people must be seeing something. Legitimate zoologists who have followed up on the cryptozoologists' claims routinely find that known animals were likely the cause of the stories: birds for the Ropen, and hippos or crocodiles for the Mokele Mbembe. Since the personal anecdote route has failed to produce hard data, cryptozoologists and Young Earthers have turned to ancient artwork in an effort to form a parallel line of evidence. Chief among these accounts is a stone carving buried in the jungles of Cambodia, the Buddhist temple of Ta Prohm.
Ta Prohm is often featured in popular culture. It's best known for its jungle trees growing among the moss-green stone ruins, most famously for the great roots flowing over it that look like they were poured into place, and its giant stone faces of Buddha. Virtually the entire temple is carved with Buddhist images or decorations. Of particular interest is one column tucked away in a corner, graced with a winding serpent that encircles a number of animals. Some are recognizable as actual animals, others are chimera or mythical creatures such as garudas or nagas. But one stands out in particular, because at first glance, you might think it looks like a Stegosaurus. It's a stout four legged animal, its big head hanging low, with a tail about like that of a dog. Most significantly, along its back is a row of pointed plates.
The Ta Prohm Stegosaurus has made waves throughout the cryptozoology world, appealing not only to those who believe that relic dinosaurs still exist in parts of the world, but even to Young Earth Creationists desperate for evidence that humans and dinosaurs coexisted. However, upon any reasonable inspection, the Ta Prohm creature fails to serve as good evidence of either of these hypotheses. There are at least three dramatic differences between it and a Stegosaurus. First and most significantly, Stegosaurus had a tiny head, such that from a side glance, it's hard to tell which end is its head and which is its tail. Both were long, graceful, and tapered out to a point. The Ta Prohm creature, conversely, has a massive head, perhaps a quarter the size of its entire body, like that of a hippo, and no neck to speak of. Second, the Ta Prohm creature is completely missing Stegosaurus' most identifiable feature: the thagomizer, the collection of four spikes at the tip of its tail. Finally, the distinctive plates rising from the spine are all wrong. Stegosaurus had 17 plates of greatly varying size, tiny at the head and tail, rising to very large at the top of the back. Ta Prohm has only six or seven, all of equal size. If the Ta Prohm carving did indeed use a living Stegosaurus as its model, then its quality is grossly out of step with that of all the other animals carved at Ta Prohm, which are quite accurate and beautifully done.
Of course, we can't know what was in the mind of the artist. But we can get an idea from looking at all the carvings in context. In all of the backgrounds, foliage is depicted. The Stegosaurus would be the only animal shown without accompanying foliage, unless we make a different interpretation of the image. If we interpret the "back plates" as background foliage, to bring the image in line with all the others, we're left with a common, fairly generic quadruped. I think it looks a lot like a single-horned Javan Rhinoceros that lived in the region at the time of Ta Prohm. Other identifications have been a wild boar, or even a chameleon. None of these are perfect matches, but all are much closer than Stegosaurus, and all are real animals that would have been well known to the Ta Prohm artists. And, of course, since Ta Prohm depicts many mythical beasts, there isn't even a need to identify the creature as a real animal. That Stegosaurus must have lived in Cambodia only 800 years ago drops to among the least likely of many possible explanations for the carving.
But even given its weaknesses, the Ta Prohm creature is head and shoulders above the rest of the evidence that's in the form of ancient art. At the bottom end of this spectrum is a formation from Bernifal Cave, one of the many caves in France filled with Cro Magnon pictographs. The paintings in Bernifal all show real animals, but some Young Earthers point to part of the rock surface that they believe has been carved to show a generic dinosaur butting heads with a mammoth. This is one of those cases of pareidolia, like the Face on Mars. It's fair to say that the contours on the rock do vaguely look like the head and jaw of a dragonlike creature, but what they call a mammoth is just a blob. The Cro Magnon are not known to have ever produced any 3D carvings of figures, and there are not even any legitimate petroglyphs in Bernifal. (A pictograph is painted on the surface of rock; a petroglyph is made by chipping into the surface.) This alleged battle to the death has the same surface texture as the rest of the cave, the same general contouring, and has never been included in any legitimate archaeological survey of the cave's artwork.
But there is real artwork, that human artists actually did make, that's better. Virtually every culture throughout history has produced art, much of it very high quality, that depicts dragons or other beasts that look something like some prehistoric species. I could speak for hours simply listing the excellent examples from China, Egypt, Mesopotamia, Rome, Mesoamerica, even North America, where you could point directly to a known dinosaur species and make a match. But you have to understand how illogical it is to consider any of this art to be evidence that the depicted creature was actually known to the artist to be a living or real animal. Art, by definition, is a representation of the artist's imagination or impression. There is an even larger number of artworks from all of these cultures that even Young Earthers and cryptozoologists would readily admit were not intended to be photorealistic representations of actual living beings. Some fantastic creatures in art happened to resemble real species, many more did not. Ancient artists did not employ a flagging system to unambiguously tell us which of their art represented mythical beings and which were intended as historical records of living animals.
I'll give two specific examples that I think would be among the most convincing: A pair of long-necked dinosaurs engraved in brass on the 1496 tomb of the Bishop of Carlisle in the UK, and another stegosaurus (of much more accurate proportions than the one at Ta Prohm) on a shard of ancient Greek pottery found in modern day Turkey. Now, it's possible to debate the details of these works all day long. Neither of them quite match what we now believe these animals looked like, including some very significant anatomical differences. But this line of reasoning is never going to get you anywhere; you can argue yourself into circles all day long and never change the mind of someone who believes that if an ancient piece of artwork superficially matches a known dinosaur, it's therefore evidence.
This all comes down to the value of anecdotal evidence. A personal account, whether it's a verbal story, a sketch, a written report, or a stone carving, cannot be tested. No matter how authoritative or reliable we consider a witness to be, his account, by itself, cannot be validated scientifically. The line of reasoning that Someone told a story, therefore it must be true is precarious indeed. The reverse is just as invalid: Someone told a story, therefore it must be false. There are so many other possibilities: Fiction, legend, metaphor. And significantly, mistaken interpretation is just as possible on the listener's end as it is on the teller's end.
If we do find a Ropen or a Mokele Mbembe one day, it seems likely that their numbers will be pretty small. Maybe relic dinosaurs were around in larger numbers when some of these ancient artists were active, but all the testable evidence we have for dinosaurs places them tens of millions of years before the first protohuman stood up. We have only anecdotes that suggest otherwise, anecdotes that fail to be backed up by the testable evidence that we would expect to exist were these creatures real.
Do dinosaurs survive in some remote corner of the world? I certainly hope so, and I think most people would love for it to be true; but I'm not putting my money on it. I think a dinosaur would be pretty hard to miss. Don't let your emotions govern your science. No matter how much you want something to be true, always consider the quality of the evidence. If it's anecdotal and unsupported by corroborating testable evidence, you have very good reason to be skeptical.