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A Wilder View: Yes, unicorns were once real

Posted at 12:03 PM, Dec 28, 2022

MISSOULA – When someone says the words 'mythical creature' you might think of Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster. But some of those fantasies might have come from real animals.

Buckle up because this edition of A Wilder View looks at why unicorns were once real.

Unicorns were real and we have the fossils to prove it, although it’s not the white horse with a beaming horn you may be thinking of. Elasmotherium sibiricum — better known as the Siberian unicorn — looked more like a rhino than a horse.

In fact, this species split from what we know as rhinos today around 43 million years ago. It lived on the Eurasian grasslands ranging from southwestern Russia and Ukraine to Kazakhstan and Siberia.

The species was quite large, weighing in at 3.5 tons which is twice as heavy as today’s rhinos. Even with this huge size and prominent shoulder hump, it is thought that the Siberian unicorn was adapted to running at speed.

The Siberian unicorn’s build indicates that they lived in open, grassy plains, grazing almost entirely on grass. It has a unique tooth structure implying that they were very specialized eaters.

But because they’re not alive, we can never be entirely sure about their behavior. However, scientists can look at living wildlife to make educated assumptions.

The rhinos we know of today tend to live alone and are very dispersed across the landscape. Sticking along the lines of unicorns in fantasies this means the Siberian unicorn most likely would have been quite a rare site to see.

This true unicorn went extinct around 39,000 years ago — which in the history of Earth is very recent. Modern-day Humans were actually around at the same time.

How they went extinct is up to speculation. Recent research proclaims it’s likely dramatic changes in the climate that occurred during the time of their extinction along with their highly specialized eating habits that ultimately lead to their demise.

So, was the Siberian unicorn where the fantastical creature originated from? Likely not.

The first written evidence of the existence of unicorns appears in natural history writings from ancient Greece in the 4th century BCE. These writings describe the “unicorn” as a wild donkey, “fleet of foot, having a horn a cubit and a half in length, and coloured white, red and black.”

In those same documents, the author describes an oryx with a nearly identical description inferring the author was likely describing the same thing twice.

According to the American Museum of Natural History, more than 2,000 years ago, Greek travelers told tales of unicorns living in far-off lands. And mistranslations helped transform them from ordinary animals to magical creatures.

In the third century B.C., scholars translating the Bible from Hebrew into Greek took the Hebrew word "re'em," likely the name of an extinct cow, and turned it into the Greek word "monokeros,” which means "one horn," which was often used to describe rhinos.

Further down the line the word later became "unicornus" in Latin translations of the Greek Bible and "unicorn" in English versions. This ultimately sparked the concept of unicorns having magical powers associated with the Bible.

To further etch unicorns as concrete evidence Italian explorer Marco Polo even wrote about them saying, “there are wild elephants and plenty of unicorns…They have a single large, black horn in the middle of the forehead…They spend their time by preference wallowing in mud and slime. They are very ugly brutes to look at. They are not at all such as we describe them.”

Here Polo is most likely describing a Sumatran rhinoceros, but this entry and other ancient catalogs made few people question the existence of unicorns.

To contribute even more to the tales of mythical unicorns, Danish sailors and other merchants brought narwhal tusks to Europe, where they were considered to be valuable, magical remains of the elusive unicorn.

This is rather fitting as narwhals are sometimes referred to as the unicorns of the ocean.