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

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.


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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