Elasmotherium, The Origin Of Unicorn Legends, Survived Until At Least 50,000 Years Ago, Possibly Until Much More Recently

November 27, 2012 in Animals & Insects, Fossils

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In Ice Age Europe and Asia, a large, somewhat horse-like genus of rhinoceros, possessing a large unicorn-like horn lived until at least as recently as 50,000 BP. And it’s possible that they survived until much more recently than that. The likely origin of the ‘unicorn’ myths common throughout the Northern Hemisphere, these animals would have been in contact with humans for hundreds of thousands of years. And though now extinct, the memory of their existence has persisted in the stories of humans.

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Several species of the animals were known to have existed. All belonging to the extinct genus, Elasmotherium, meaning ‘Thin Plate Beast’. They were quite common in Eurasia during the last couple of million years, documented from around 2.6 million years ago to at least as late as 50,000 years ago, possibly much later. Of the three known species, the most famous is E. sibiricum. Roughly the size of a mammoth and possessing a singular enormous horn on its forehead, it’s a very distinct looking animal, and calls to mind the image of many mythical creatures. The horn is presumed to have been utilized for competition with other males, attracting mates, defense from predators, digging up roots, opening water holes, and clearing snow from grass. And like all known species of rhinoceroses, elasmotheres were herbivores. Distinct from any other known rhinoceroses though, the high-crowned molars that they possessed never stopped growing. And very interestingly, its legs were quite a bit different, and longer, than those of modern rhinos. They were very well adapted for galloping, giving it a ‘horse-like gait’, further supporting the idea of its identity as that of the mythological ‘unicorn’.

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Based on the limited number of fossil specimens of E. sibiricum the size estimates have some margin of error, but they reached up to at least 15 ft in length and a shoulder height of over 6 ft 7 in. While E. caucasicum reached up to at least 16 ft in length, and an estimated weight of up to 8,000-10,000 lbs. Which places both species among the largest of the Rhinocerotidae family. They would have been of similar size to the wooly mammoth and larger than their relatives the woolly rhinoceros. Another notable fact is that their front feet were bigger than their rear feet, possessing four digits at the front and only three at the rear.

Both species are known from hundreds of different sites throughout Eurasia, most of the finds consisting only of skull fragments and teeth, but there have also been a significant number of nearly complete skeletons found. The find sites are spread out over all of Eurasia, from Eastern Europe to China. And there is compelling evidence, in the form of cave paintings, that they lived as far west as France.

The most recent specimens yet found, in southern Siberia, date to 50,000 BP. It appears that these individuals were brought into the cave by predators, possibly humans. Cave hyena bones were also found in the cave though, and are known to have been top predators of the species, and nearly anything really, including humans. It’s been well documented that cave hyenas, humans, cave lions, and cave bears often competed for caves, with the dominant residents repeatedly changing over time. Evidence has also been found of the survival of elasmotheres in Beringia until at least 37,000 BP.

When their actual end came remains something of a mystery though, there have been quite a large number of stories about animals that fit their description in the not too distant past of the last 10,000 or so years.

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The stories don’t seem to be a modern invention either, as far back as the beginning of modern literature in the Middle Ages stories about them have been recounted. And the famous Arabic medieval traveller Ibn Fadlan even mentioned them in his writings:

“Near this river (the Volga) is a vast wilderness wherein they say is an animal that is less than a camel and more like a bull in size. Its head is like the head of a camel, and its tail is like the tail of a bull, while its body is like the body of a mule, and its hooves are like the cloven hooves of a bull. In the center of its head, it has a thick round horn, which as it rises from the head of the animal gets to be thinner until it becomes like the point of a lance. The length of some of these horns is from three to five cubits (roughly 4.5-7.5 feet), and there are those that may attain to a greater or lesser length. The animal grazes on the leaves of trees, which are quite green. When it sees a horseman, it makes straight for him, and if he happens to have under him a fast horse, he is rendered safe from it with some effort. If it overtakes him, it removes him from the back of his horse with its horn, hurls him into the air, and then catches him with its horn. It continues in this manner until it kills him. It does not bother the horse in any form or manner. They seek out this animal in the forests in order to kill it. They do that by climbing the tall trees among which it is found, and with this object in mind, they assemble a number of archers with poisoned arrows. When it stands in their midst, they shoot at it until it is severely wounded and killed by them.”

There are many other reports throughout history, different cultures, and different civilizations:

“In 1866 Vasily Radlov reported a legend among the Yakuts of Siberia of a ‘huge black bull’ killed by spear, who had ‘a single horn’ so large it required a sledge for transportation.”

“The Shiji (‘Historical Records’) of Sima Qian in the 2nd century mentions the capture of a ‘deer-like’ animal with one horn in 122 BC. The Chunqin, an encyclopedia of the 3rd century BC, states that a unicorn was captured in 481 BC, but without any description. Chinese representations of unicorns vary quite a lot, but an engraving on a bronze vessel of the Warring States Period, shows an animal very like the cave paintings supposed to be of Elasmotherium: head down for grazing, horn protruding horizontally from the forehead, neck and shoulders humped.”

“The Arabo-Persian word for unicorn in the region was karkadann, which extended also to India, and was loaned into the Turkmen language as kergeden and the Ottoman Turkish language as gergeden, among others. The word had an equivocal meaning: unicorn and rhinoceros. This rhinoceros has capabilities and habits not possessed by the Indian rhinoceros: it indulges in mortal combat with elephants, which it kills by goring underneath with its horn. However the two conduct their combats over grasslands never populated by either in historical times. The root of the word is Sanskrit Khadga-, Khadga dhenu-, ‘rhinoceros’.”

“From medieval northern Russia, probably Veliky Novgorod, a collection of ballads has survived, combined into a spiritual theme deriving ultimately from Zoroastrianism, but with Christian overtones, called the Stikh o Golubinioi knige, or in another version the Golubiniai kniga, ‘The Book of the Dove’. The ‘dove’, or golub of the Christian work is probably an alteration of glub, ‘depth’, so that the reconstructed name, *Glubinnaia kniga, is on the same theme as the Zend Avesta and similar works in Iran, the struggle between cosmic good and evil.
The force of pravda, or ‘rightness’, is symbolized by a beast called mainly the Indrik, but also Indra, Beloiandrikh, Kondryk, Edinrog and Edinor. The name is a calque: Greek mono-keros (‘single-horn’) > ino-rog (in, ‘one’; rogom, ‘horn’) > edinrog > Indrik. As a unicorn struggling with a lion representing krivda, ‘lies’, the Indrik has the body of a goat or a horse in representations.”

“An Indrik composite from all the variants of the ballads depicts the Indrik as dwelling in the Holy Mountain, which it consumes for sustenance. It is the mother or the father of all animals. It wanders unseen on the plain by day. When other beasts encounter it they must do obeisance. The Indrik saves the world from draught by digging springs of pure water. By night it wanders in the subterranean world, forging a path with its horn. There it purifies all the waters and releases them from any blockages.”

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Paleolithic art from Rouffignac Cave, France, judged on the basis of the single horn to depict Elasmotherium by Schaurte in 1964 and again independently by N. Spassov in 2001. If true, the judgement would extend the range to Western Europe.

Source: Wikipedia

Image Credits: Cave Art, Elasmotherium, Horn and Pair via Wikimedia Commons

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