Dinosaur or mud stain? An ancient cave drawing high on a rock formation in southeastern Utah has stirred a skirmish of sorts between creationists who believe it's proof that humans and dinosaurs lived together, and scientists who say no way.
A new research paper out on the subject probably won't change too many minds, but it is giving food for thought to those who wonder what the fuss is about.
The petroglyph at the Kachina Bridge formation in Natural Bridges National Monument has drawn curious visitors for years. By many accounts, it appears to be a hand-drawn plant-eating dino, like the happy green diplodocus that was the old Sinclair Oil logo.
Phil Senter, a biology professor at Fayetteville State University, hiked the region with his fiancé two summers ago. "We got there and I couldn't believe it," Senter said. "It looked just like a sauropod."
Petroglyphs are common throughout parts of Colorado, Utah and New Mexico, drawn several thousand years ago by early Native Americans. The drawings represent deer and many other animals, but this was one of a few depicting prehistoric animals.
Senter found that the petroglyph had been adopted by creationist groups as proof that the human artist coexisted with dinosaurs. The image can be found on several creationist websites and is part of an exhibit at the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Ky.
Intrigued by the drawing, Senter contacted Sally J. Cole, an author based in Basalt, Colo., and an archaeologist who has written extensively on petroglyphs of the west. Cole examined the drawing and declared that it was actually a composite of two separate petroglyphs, one being a snake or serpent. The dinosaur "legs" were actually natural mineral or mud stains.
Senter and Cole published their findings in Palaeontologia Electronica, a peer-reviewed online journal. But that's not likely the end of the story.
Contacted by Discovery News, officials at the Creationist Museum criticized the report. They noted that Cole examined the drawing with binoculars rather than getting close up.
"I'm prepared to accept that the petroglyph as being a dinosaur," said David Menton, a biologist at the Creation Museum. "I'm prepared that it is some other creature. What I'm not prepared to accept is that the artist climbed up there but the authors didn't climb up. They came to the conclusion that it was nothing."
Cole was not available for comment and her email is not listed on the paper. The paper states that the area is too rugged to bring in a ladder. Senter and Cole say the dinosaur drawing is a form of "paraeidolia, the psychological phenomenon of perceiving significance in vague or random stimuli, e.g., seeing animals in clouds or the face of a religious figure in a food item."
But Menton says he wishes the paper's authors would have provided a better explanation of what they found.
"I would say the illustration is consistent with a sauropod in general appearance," Menton said. "I reject the hypothesis that it has no meaning at all. I'd rather hear the authors say: 'Here's a better possibility.'"
There are actually several dino-looking drawings at Kachina Bridge, including one that some say resembles a three-horned Triceratops and another of a one-horned Monoclonius. The paper says they, too, are either composite drawings or resemble "no specifically identifiable quadrupedal animal."