A prehistoric “fuzzy rhinoceros” sometimes credited as a potential source of the unicorn myth, may have lived at the same time as humans, new research has suggested.
Several animals have been cited as inspirations for a magical horse with a single, powerful horn, including the oryx and the narwhal whale — whose tusks were sometimes traded as evidence of unicorns in the middle ages.
The Elasmotherium sibiricum, or ‘Siberian rhinoceros’, is another compelling contender; with a single horn, standing six feet tall with huge teeth it was very different to the classic unicorn of myth, but was in some ways visually similar. And it’s a mistake that’s been made at least once — a reference to a ‘unicorn’ in travel diaries ascribed to Marco Polo almost certainly describe a Javan rhino.
Until now it was thought the ancient animal died out too far too early — around 350,000 years ago — to persist in human memory or oral history. But new research suggests that it actually persisted in Kazakhstan until around 29,000 years ago, which means that its lifespan overlapped with that of modern humans. The study from Tomsk State University, published in the American Journal of Applied Sciences, details new fossil evidence of the Elasmotherium sibiricum, which could be up to 9,000lbs in weight. “Most likely, the south of Western Siberia was a refúgium, where this rhino persevered the longest in comparison with the rest of its range,” said Andrey Shpanski, a palaeontologist who worked on the study.
The study appears to show that the rhinoceros probably did live longer than thought. Of course that is far from conclusive proof that it forms the basis of the unicorn idea — or even that the concept pre-dates ancient Greece.
Usually the source of the unicorn was located in India by the Greeks, but research has suggested that tablets from the Indus Valley depicting ‘unicorns’, actually show aurochs — large cattle with two horns. The tablets depict animals only in profile, it is suggested, meaning that their two horns are depicted as one.
Many ‘unicorn’ remains have since been revealed to be horned or antler-ed animals with genetic mutations. The discovery of a ‘unicorn deer’ in Italy in 2008 was found to be either a genetic mutation or “the result of some kind of trauma in the early life of the deer”.