Bayon glyph depicting mystery long-necked bird between rhinoceros and ox at Angkor Wat, Cambodia (public domain)
They say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and the same has certainly been true of cryptids on many occasions in the past. The following case may – or may not – constitute a further example of this cryptozoological rule of thumb.
In terms of their current native zoogeography, modern-day ratites all have very precise distributions on the continental level. The ostrich is nowadays entirely confined to Africa (its contingent in Asia Minor was hunted into extinction by the mid-20th Century), the rheas to South America, the emu to Australia, the now-extinct moas to New Zealand, the now-extinct elephant birds to Madagascar, and the cassowaries to Australia and New Guinea. However, there are no known modern-day ratites native to mainland Asia (nor are there any to Europe or North America either, for that matter), which makes a certain enigmatic carving present on a famous Indochinese temple of particular interest.
Dating from the 12th Century and richly decorated with countless numbers of bas-relief glyphs carved upon its numerous sandstone columns and walls, depicting a wide range of deities and animals, Angkor Wat is a celebrated temple complex in Cambodia and constitutes the world's largest religious monument. It also lays claim to cryptozoological fame, courtesy of a specific glyph carved on a wall at Ta Prohm, one of the temples in this complex, because the animal portrayed by this glyph bears a remarkable superficial resemblance to one of the classic plate-backed stegosaurian dinosaurs from prehistoric times. Not surprisingly, this anomalous, ostensibly anachronistic carving has attracted considerable discussion and dissension as to what creature it does truly depict, and I have documented it in a number of my own publications.
However, there is also a second glyph at Angkor Wat that, although far less famous than the 'stegosaur', is no less intriguing from a cryptozoological viewpoint, because one identity scientifically proposed for the notably long-necked bird that it depicts is a New Zealand moa. This glyph can be found in a temple known as the Bayon, with the mystery bird in question being sandwiched between a carving of a rhinoceros to its immediate left and one of an ox (possibly a gaur) to its immediate right.
Close-up of Bayon glyph depicting rhinoceros, mystery long-necked bird, and ox at Angkor Wat, Cambodia (public domain)
As seen in the illustration reproduced here of this glyph's animal trio, the bird has stout legs, a noticeably plump winged body, and an extremely long slender neck with a small head atop. In the April 1986 issue of the German scientific periodical Natur und Museum, Drs G.H. Ralph von Koenigswald and Joachim Steinbacher correctly pointed out that the above morphology ruled out any of the local heron species (the same is true of storks, because both storks and herons possess very long, slender, bayonet-like beaks, whereas the carved bird's is shorter, stouter, and has a hooked tip). They also noted that the glyph carver's placing it between two such large mammals as a rhinoceros and an ox (and with its head almost as high as theirs despite the fact that its neck was not even upright but was being held at an angle of approximately 45°) was probably done specifically to demonstrate just how big this bird was.
April 1986 issue of Natur und Museum, featuring on its cover the avian subjects in the von Koenigswald-Steinbacher paper (© Natur und Museum)
Reflecting upon these factors, the authors suggested that perhaps the bird was a New Zealand moa, and, if so, quite probably the sturdy, relatively short-legged coastal moa Euryapteryx curtus (as opposed to the more famous and taller but much slimmer and longer-legged giant Dinornis moas). The moas were not believed to have become extinct in their native New Zealand domain until the mid-1400s (seemingly as a result of over-hunting and habitat destruction by the Maoris), i.e. around 250 years after the creation of Angkor Wat. Due to the extensive trade links and maritime travel that had been occurring in the southeast Asian-Australasian region for many centuries, the authors believed it likely that New Zealand's mighty moas would have been known about in Indochina at the time of Angkor Wat's creation, and that their spectacular appearance might well have inspired a carving of one to be produced amid the many other depictions of striking wildlife and mythological monsters present here.
Moreover, as the authors also noted, traders throughout history have transported preserved and living specimens of unusual, exotic-looking animals far from their native homelands to those of the traders as curiosities for exhibition purposes. Hence it is remotely possible that merchants travelling between Australasia and Indochina brought a preserved or perhaps even a living moa back with them to Cambodia at some point during the quarter-millennium spanning Angkor Wat's completion and the moas' extinction in New Zealand.
And indeed, there are some very pertinent precedents for transporting living ratites from Australasia to Asia, because cassowaries are known to have been transported westwards by mariners in bygone centuries from their native Australian and New Guinea homelands to Indonesia and China. Indeed, as the authors also discussed in this same paper, there is even a glyph of a cassowary-like bird at the Tjandi-Panataran, a Hindu temple not far from Wadjak in Java and dating from around the 12th-15th Century, which may offer further evidence of such transportations. Additional details regarding this subject are contained in my book The Beasts That Hide From Man (2003) and also in a ShukerNature blog article on cassowaries (click here).
Having said that, there might be an altogether much more mundane, prosaic explanation for the long-necked mystery bird of Angkor Wat. Namely, that its appearance may not be due so much to any taxonomic identity as a moa but rather to the fact that there was a space needing to be filled between the rhino and the ox, and a non-specific long-necked bird simply made an ideal space-filler, with any perceived similarities to Euryapteryx or any other moa being merely coincidental. In short, the bird's morphology was moulded by the specific shape of the space needing to be filled, nothing more.
Alongside a life-sized statue of a giant moa Dinornis sp. at Chester Zoo, England (© Dr Karl Shuker)
Indeed, a telling suggestion that this may well be the case is that whereas the wings of all moas were non-existent, the Angkor Wat bird has a very large, conspicuous wing readily visible. In addition, moa beaks were not hook-tipped. Such notable discrepancies as these would not be expected if the glyph provides as accurate a representation of the bird as it does for the rhinoceros and the ox, both of which are portrayed realistically and are readily recognisable.
This ShukerNature blog article is excerpted from my latest book, A Manifestation of Monsters.