Giant prehistoric turtle and the Cosmic Turtle

Discovery in Colombia of a prehistoric 1.5 m giant turtle that had flourished after dinosaurs died out

Could the fossils of this giant turtle turning up in ancient times have been fueling the many myths (Indian Vedic (Kurmaraja), IndonesiaNative American (LenapeDelaware and Iroquois Indians), Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Italy) of the Cosmic Turtle that held up the world on its back? see distribution

The round shape of a new species of fossil turtle, reported July 11, 2012, and found in Cerrejon coal mine in Colombia, would have meant more surface area to be warmed by the sun.
CREDIT: Liz Bradford

Huge turtle with circular shell once roamed Earth (

A newfound giant turtle that lived 60 million years ago in what is now northwestern South America would have been more than a mouthful for a neighboring predator, the world’s largest snake Titanoboa.

The turtle’s huge carapace, or shell, was nearly circular, like a tire, the researchers said.

The fossil turtle was discovered in Colombia’s La Puente pit in the Cerrejón Coal Mine, made famous for its other treasures, including the extinct Titanoboa cerrejonensis, two crocodile species, Cerrejonisuchus improcerus and Acherontisuchus guajiraensis, as well as two turtle species, the small-car-size Carbonemys cofrinii and the thick-shelled Cerrejonemys wayuunaiki. (C. improcerus would have been an easy meal for the 45-foot, or nearly 14 meters, Titanoboa snake, said researchers who discovered the 6- to 7-foot-long crocodile.)

Named Puentemys mushaisaensis after the pit where it was found, the turtle, whose shell would have extended 5 feet (1.5 m) across, adds to growing evidence that tropical reptiles ballooned after the dinosaurs were wiped out.

Even with its mouth wide open, Titanoboa wouldn’t have been able to down this turtle, not whole at least. And its round, low-domed shape would have increased the surface area exposed to the sun to keep the cold-blooded turtle warm, said study researcher Carlos Jaramillo of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama.

“The shell was far more rounded than a typical turtle,” Jaramillo told LiveScience.

Various factors, including plentiful food, fewer predators, large habitat and climate change, would have worked together to allow turtles and other animals to reach such relatively gargantuan sizes, scientists have suggested.

For instance, the warm weather where would’ve been beneficial for P. mushaisaensis and other ectotherms that rely on their surroundings to regulate their body temperature.

Follow LiveScience on Twitter @livescience.

Editor’s Note: This article was updated to correct a sentence about the 6- to 7-foot crocodile; it inaccurately said “snake.” (7/12)


The Cosmic Turtle Around the World


In Japanese mythology, the tortoise supports the ‘Abode of the Immortals’ and the ‘Cosmic Mountain’, where the Cosmic Mountain relates to the axis mundi – the world axis.

Borobodur, Indonesia:

Borobodur turtle relief Photo:

Above turtle relief from the 9th-century Mahayana Buddhist Temple in Magelang, Central Java, Indonesia,  consisting of six square platforms topped by three circular platforms thought to have been founded around 800CE at the peak of the Sailendra dynasty when it was under the influence of the Srivijayan Empire (Malay empire in Sumatra) which had close relations and interactions — and often rivalries — with neighboring JavaKambuja and Champa.

In nearby Bali, the Hindu influence is more prominent, where the turtle or tortoise is itself a sacred animal for Balinese Hindus, representing the Kurma Avatar or Bedawang Nala (Wisnu’s incarnation as a giant turtle supporting the world). Sea turtles are valued as sustainers of life on earth.  Turtle meat was traditionally used as offerings during the religious ceremonies and a few Hindu ceremonies customarily also used a turtle head as a part of the offering, symbolizing the base of the world. Following conservation efforts, however, turtle meat consumption was reduced and the real turtle head offering replaced with symbols such as a drawing of a turtle or a turtle-shaped rice cake.

Early India: Buddhist Legends, Jataka

In the Hindu scriptures, the turtle/tortoise is a solar symbol and the great sage Kasyapa (Sanskrit for tortoise) is the father of Aditya, the Sun. The story of the Historical Buddha’s birth as a tortoise (in his past lives, before becoming the Buddha) is featured in Indian reliefs of the first gallery balustrade, where a total of five panels present the culminating scenes from a story called the Kaccapavadana. Kasyapa is particularly appropriate representation for a past life of the Sakyamuni, who was sometimes called the “Kinsman of the Sun” (Adityabandu).

In Indian mythology, the tortoise is said to be the first living creature – the progenitor, and is equated with the Pole Star, which is, by its alignment, related to the earth’s axis. The flat lower shell of the tortoise is the plane of the terrestrial world and its’ rounded upper shell is the celestial world (the canopy of the sky).

The tortoise is depicted supporting the elephant on whose back the world rests. The elephant is male, the tortoise female, so representing the two creative powers of ida and pingala (or yin and yang).

Symbolically the retraction of the tortoises head into its shell is regarded as a conscious turning inward as in meditation and therefore showing an advanced spiritual state.

One of the incarnations of the central deity, Vishnu (the Preserver), was as a tortoise – the progenitor of all living creatures.

See the Indian Vedic “Kurmaraja” tales:

The Devas lost their strength and powers due to a curse by the sage Durvasa because Indra, the king of the Devas, had insulted the sage’s gift (a garland) by giving it to his elephant (Airavata) which trampled upon it. Thus, after losing their immortality and kingdom, they approached Lord Vishnu for help.

Vishnu suggested that they needed to drink the nectar of immortality to regain their lost glory. However, they needed to strive hard to acquire the nectar since it was hidden in the ocean of milk. After declaring a truce with their foes (Asuras), Indra and his Devas together with the Asuras, use the serpent Vasuki as a churning rope and the mount Mandara as the churning staff.

When they began churning, the mount began sinking into the ocean. Taking the form of a turtle (Kurma), Vishnu bears the entire weight of the mountain and the churning continues.[1] Fourteen precious things come out of the ocean, culminating with Dhanvantari, the physician of the gods, appearing with the nectar of immortality. The Asuras immediately rush and grab the nectar while quarrelling among themselves. Vishnu again comes to the rescue in the form of a beautiful damsel, Mohini and tricks the Asuras and retrieves the potion which is distributed to the Devas. Though the Asuras realize Vishnu’s tricks, it is too late, as the Devas regain their renowned prowess and defeat them.


The Yoruba of Africa (Y-DNA E1b1) developed a divination system called Ifa that used tortoise shells as an oracle.

This association of the tortoise with oracular powers is however, more well-known of the Chinese. The Yoruba have been found to be genetically related to the Chinese… 180 out of 188 SNPs, all but 8 are found in both the Chinese sequence as well as in the Yoruba sequence. The 180 SNPs that the Chinese and Yoruba male share that appear to be between the PO node (See “Comparison of Yoruba, Chinese…“)


The Chinese are well-known for their ancient divining system or pyro-osteomancy (which was also practised in Japan since the Yayoi period) known as the Tortoise Oracle.  The earliest pyro-osteomancy in China using turtle plastrons (shells) as well as the bones of sheep, deer, cattle, and pigs, was known from prehistoric east and northeast Asia… uncovered in especially abundant numbers from archaeological sites from the Shang Dynasty in China. The site of Anyang had over 10,000 of these objects, primarily ox shoulder blades and turtle shells carved with archaic forms of Chinese characters, used for divination between the 16th and 11th century BC. One early method of divination was to heat animal bones in a fire and study the cracks that appeared; another method was to interpret the markings on tortoise shells. Such methods were probably employed to consult about affairs of state, fortunes of war, proposed marriages etc.

This oracular connection of the tortoise is likely connected to the legend of the I Ching’s origin:

Around 3000 BC, the Emperor Fu-hsi (Fu-xi) was meditating by the Yellow River, when a tortoise emerged from the water and the markings on its shell revealed to him the trigrams of the I Ching. The 8 trigrams were later paired to produce a more sophisticated system with 64 hexagrams. (Source: Tortoises, I Ching and the Magic Squares)

This next legend has echoes of the Indian myths and thus may have diffused via the northwest  Vedic India (dates back at least 3100 BCE):

The Vedic culture is now considered (see the Quest for the origins of Vedic culture” the by-product of an invasion or migration of “Indo-Aryans” from outside the subcontinent.

The creator goddess Nüwa (or Nukua) cut the legs off the giant sea turtle Ao (鳌) and used them to prop up the sky after Gong Gong damaged the Buzhou Mountain that had previously supported the heavens.

In Chinese culture, especially under the influence of Taoism (道教) the tortoise is the symbol of heaven and earth, its shell compared to the vaulted heaven and the underside to the flat disc of the earth. The tortoise was the hero of many ancient legends. It helped the First Chinese Emperor to tame the Yellow River, so Shang-di rewarded the animal with a life span of Ten Thousand Years. Thus the tortoise became a symbol for Long Life…which is likely why stone grave steles on a stone tortoise are commonly found or  tomb objects seen in China-Mongolia, Korea and Japan. The tortoise is also regarded as an immortal creature. This probably indicates the symbolism of rebirth and regeneration cycle of life.

As there are no male tortoises — as the ancient believed — the female had to mate with a snake. Thus the tortoise embracing a snake became the protector symbol of the north, but since the word “tortoise” was taboo in Chinese, it was referred to as the “dark warrior” (genbu 玄武 ) and finally became Zhenwu (in Chinese Taoism), one of the four protector gods of the four directions. The symbol of Zhenwu, the Protector God of the North, as tortoise and snake (or tortoise entwined by a snake) dates back to the third century BC. For more on Taoism, see this online catalog about “Taoism and the Arts of China.”

The Dark Lord of the North, Xuan Wu (Xuan Wu Da Di) is a deity that comes from the prehistory of shamanic times (c. 6000 BC). In relatively modern Chinese prehistory (c. 1200 BC) the Dark Lord has become the human figure of a warrior with wild, unruly black hair, dressed in the primitive clothing of the tribal peoples of Neolithic times. He is powerful and strong deity capable of powerful punishments and redemptive deliverance. He is frequently depicted as the black tortoise who rules over the direction North in Chinese cosmology. He is called ” Xuan” for the color black and ” Wu” meaning “tortoise.

Prehistory: The Snake and the Tortoise
The Dark Lord speaks to a more ancient myth, that of the snake and the tortoise, in religious prehistory. Very ancient drawings of a black snake and tortoise together symbolize the Dark Lord. These reptilian creatures, the snake and tortoise, were probably themselves worshipped or were powerful medicine to help in overcoming one’s enemies. From Shang times onward, the flag bearing this symbol (snake and tortoise) was part of the king’s color guard. In Neolithic prehistory the tortoise — also known as the somber warrior — and snake together are the symbols or totems of a powerful shaman who fights evil against the demons of the Invisible World. According to ancient tradition, the black tortoise is yin; the snake yang. <end quote by Online Journal of the I Ching> — Source: The Online Journal of the I Ching, Yi Jing

See Tortoises, I-Ching and the Magic Squares writes about the sacred geometry of the turtle involving the 4 cardinal directions and the Lo Shu Magic squares:

“The tortoise has frequently been associated with the art of divination and is often credited with bringing to us the trigrams of the I Ching and also the idea of the Lo Shu magic square, which is much used in Feng Shui as well as in mystic sciences and sacred geometry throughout the world.

In Chinese symbolism the tortoise represents the beginning of creation, time, longevity and wisdom. It is said that the Goddess of Creation – Nu Kua used the feet of the Cosmic Tortoise for the ‘4 Corners of the Earth’ and its shell for the ‘Vault of the Heavens’.

Rarely is a distinction made between the tortoise and the turtle and together they are associated with the element of water, the season of winter and the direction of north – the direction of death / rebirth. The ability to slow down its body metabolism (apparently dying), during winter hibernation, and then awake renewed, reflect the death /rebirth association.

The tortoise is sometimes known as the ‘Dark Warrior’ and in this role its qualities are seen as strength, endurance and regeneration.

Its inanimate shell represents the lifeless rock that is acted upon by the elements of nature and by divine inspiration (the breath of the heavens) to produce life. This scenario is dramatised in the novel ‘A Journey to the West’ where Monkey (and by analogy humanity), is born as the Stone Monkey, from an egg shaped rock. Thus born into the light, he must become a warrior and encounter his dark or shadow side.

Another Chinese legend tells of how a family were trapped within a cave and were able to survive for many hundreds of years (yes – hundreds), by observing and copying a tortoise that was trapped in the cave with them.

A tortoise entwined with a snake is depicted on a statue attributed to Wu Tao-Tzu, the great Buddhist painter of the T’ang dynasty. Chinese artwork will sometimes show a snake and tortoise entwined and it is said that their coupling engendered the universe. Other artworks show a tortoise with a crane (also common in Korea and Japan (from the Nara period onwards), and when these two animals are together it is specifically a symbol that emphasises longevity.”


Stele on the back of a tortoise statue, Southern statue, Karakorum, Inner Mongolia

Above a Mongolian stele stands on the back of stone tortoises similar to those found around the capital of the Mongol Empire Karakorum.


The Korean (and Japanese) turtle tomb guardian genbu are likely derived from both the Indian and Chinese Shang dynasty myths.

Native Americans:

The turtle is one of their oldest, most sacred symbols. They believed that North America was created on the back of The Great Mother, a turtle.  The turtle’s shell resembled a dome and was seen as a symbol of the dome of heaven -hence heavenly virtue. The turtle was carved and worn as a talisman for longevity and power over all forms of bad magic.

“According to some Native American tales, the Earth Diver turtle swam to the bottom of the water that stretched across the world. He surfaced with the mud which the creator used to make the earth. The turtle is a shore creature, using the land and the water. All shore areas are associated with doorways to the Faerie Realm. The turtle is sometimes known as the keeper of the doors. They were often seen as signs of fairy contact and the promise of fairy rewards.” — Turtle symbolism

In Sonora, northern Mexico, one of the ancient prehistoric burials excavated included a turtle shell on the individual’s chest.

Ancient Greece:

In classical mythology the tortoise is sacred to both Aphrodite (Venus) and Hermes (Mercury), two deities associated with sexuality. It has been suggested that one reason for this association may be the action of the tortoises head as it extends and retreats from its shell. Here again we see a connection fertility and with procreation.
Aesop, the Greek slave famous for his fables, tells us that the tortoise got its shell after declining an invitation from Zeus, with the excuse that, “There’s no place like home”. The response angered Zeus so much that he made the tortoise forever carry around his home. Despite this handicap, in another well known fable (associated with the loss of the gift of immortality from the gods), the tortoise is victorious in a race with a hare, proving that slow and steady can arrive first.


Sources and references:

Shishin: Four Guardians of the Four Compass Directions

Very round ancient turtle warmed readily in the sun (New Scientist)

Balinese Hindu priests support the turtle conservation

Livescience photo gallery (scroll to 4/10 to view skeleton with turtle carapace over chest)

What is the symbolism of the turtle?

Oracle bones

From Chinese Archaeology | Kaogu 31 Aug 2011:

The Architectural Foundation on the Guifu Hill in the Zuling Mausoleum Precinct of the Liao Dynasty in Bairin Left Banner, Inner Mongolia.

ABSTRACT: In the summer 2007, Second Inner Mongolian Archaeological Team, IA, CASS and other institutions excavated the architectural foundation on the Guifu Hill in the Zuling Mausoleum of the Liao Dynasty. Facing the south, this architecture was an earth-and-timber structure. The whole architecture consisted of the foundation, the main body and the mounting paths on the two sides. The main body had three bays in both longitudinal and transverse directions. In the center of the main body was a tortoise-shaped stele pedestal, on the back of which was a socket for erecting the stele. The stele was a bilingual one bearing Khitan large script characters and Chinese characters recording the historic merits of Yelü Abaoji, the Emperor Taizu of the Liao Dynasty. Referred to the historic literature, this architectural foundation is defined as the monument tower of Emperor Taizu noted in Liao Shi (the History of the Liao Dynasty)



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