The Last of the Siberian Unicorns: What Happened to the Mammoth-Sized One-Horned Beasts of Legend?

The Last of the Siberian Unicorns: What Happened to the Mammoth-Sized One-Horned Beasts of Legend?

(Read the article on one page)

Elasmotherium, also known as the Giant Rhinoceros or the Giant Siberian Unicorn, is an extinct species of rhino that lived in the Eurasian area in the Late Pliocene and Pleistocene eras. They have been documented from 2.6 million years ago, but the most recent fossils come from around 29,000 years ago. The best known of this species, the E. sibiricum , was the size of a mammoth, covered in hair, and is thought to have had a large horn protruding from its forehead, hence the title “Siberian Unicorn”. According to early estimated descriptions, the beast stood around 2 meters (6.56 ft.) tall, 4.5 meters (14.76 ft.) long, and weighted an impressive 4 tonnes.

Deciphering the Siberian Unicorn’s Story

The species, Elasmotherium, was first named in 1808 by Johan Fischer von Waldheim, the Dirécteur Perpétuel of the Natural History Museum at Moscow University. All he produced to argue his case was the lower jaw, donated to the museum by Yekaterina Romanovna Vorontsova-Dashkova. But from this, the species was named and studied further.

The "Moscow mandible", holotype of Elasmotherium sibiricum.

The "Moscow mandible", holotype of Elasmotherium sibiricum. ( Public Domain )

In March 2016, a beautifully preserved skull was found in the Pavlodar region of Kazakhstan proving that the animal lived until the Pleistocene era, some 29,000 years ago, instead of the previously held belief that they had died out 350,000 years ago. Based on the size and condition of the skull, it has been suggested that it was a very old male, but it is uncertain how the beast died.

Various theories have arisen concerning the look of the Siberian unicorn, along with its nutrition and habits due to the wide variation in reconstructions. Some show the beast galloping like a horse; others hunched over with head to the ground, like a bison, and others immersed in a swamp like a hippo.

‘Elasmotherium’ (circa 1920) by Heinrich Harder.

‘Elasmotherium’ (circa 1920) by Heinrich Harder. ( Public Domain )

Debating the Siberian Unicorn’s Horn and Extinction

The issue of the horn is highly debated, typically concerning whether there was one, or not, how large it was, and what it was used for. Theories on the function of the horn range from defense, attracting mates, driving away competitors, sweeping snow from the grass, and digging for water and plant roots. Since the beasts were herbivores, like our modern rhinos, this horn could not have been used to attack or kill prey. Only circumstantial evidence exists from sparse specimens to prove whether the beast was horned or not, and whether it was hairy or bald. However, there is some evidence to suggest that the creature was covered in hair, like the more well-known woolly mammoth.

An artist’s interpretation of the "Giant Unicorn" rhinoceros, Elasmotherium sibiricus of Pleistocene Siberia.

An artist’s interpretation of the "Giant Unicorn" rhinoceros, Elasmotherium sibiricus of Pleistocene Siberia. (Apokryltaros/ CC BY SA 3.0 )

The main evidence to suggest that the Siberian unicorn was in fact horned is the frontal protuberance on the skull, which caught the attention of paleontologists in the 19th century and was immediately interpreted as the base for a horn. Evidence also shows that the horn would not have been circular. This is supported by a fossil with a non-circular, partially healed puncture wound in the base, usually interpreted as the result of dueling another male with a horn.

Fossil of Elasmotherium on display at the Natural History Museum, London.

Fossil of Elasmotherium on display at the Natural History Museum, London. ( CC BY SA 3.0 )

While males would have fought for their territory, their habitat spanned from the Don River to the east of modern Kazakhstan. Residue findings show a long habitation of these ancient rhinos in the southeast of the West Siberian Plain. However, there is no clear reason why the final Siberian unicorns died out. Researchers have been looking into the specific environmental factors that may have caused the extinction of this species, as it may lead to answers to the extinction facing various species today.

The Legendary Unicorn

Legends of the unicorn, or a beast with a single horn, have been around for millennia in China and Eastern Europe. The Chinese “K’i-lin”, referring to some sort of beast, was translated into Turkish and Mongolic languages and lore. While the writers in all these languages did not know how to describe the beast, one common theme was the single horn, along with their vast stature.

A bronze vessel from the Warring States period shows an animal very much like one depicted in cave paintings that are said to be Elasmotherium: head down for grazing, horn protruding from the forehead, and head and shoulders slumped. In 1866, Vasily Radlov found a legend among the Yakuts of Siberia of a “huge black bull” killed by a single spear. The beast was said to have a single horn so large that it had to be transported by sled. Other legends circulate in this region, usually concerning a large white or blue woolly bull with one large horn coming from its forehead.

Comments

Sometimes I wondered how our current world could be so empty, where all those beast, dragons, unicorns and so on went. Well now I, as I learn more and more about those things, wonder how they survived in our mythology and collective memory for so long. It's sad that we could not bring them back, how I would love to saw some of those beasts roam wast lands of Siberia, active volcanoes in my country (well "we" had one roughly 160 000BCE).

It's almost like something carried them away and then age of man came and everything changed.

the land of Siberia is largely still nowadays unexplored and still pleasantly surprised, it is very likely that the myth of narwhal have the source of this prehistoric animal ...

Register to become part of our active community, get updates, receive a monthly newsletter, and enjoy the benefits and rewards of our member point system OR just post your comment below as a Guest.

Myths & Legends

Open Book Photo
A legend is a tale regarded as historical even though it has not been proven, and the term “myth” can refer to common yet false ideas. Many myths and legends describe our history, but they are often treated skeptically. This is because many of them, while explaining a phenomenon, involve divine or supernatural beings.

Human Origins

Sky Burial: Tibet’s Ancient Tradition for Honoring the Dead
The tradition of Sky burials, which is also known by the name of ‘Celestial burial’, is particularly associated with the Tibetan culture, although it has existed in other civilizations throughout history.

Ancient Technology

Opinion

The ancient and mysterious Sphinx, Giza, Egypt.
In 1995, NBC televised a prime-time documentary hosted by actor Charlton Heston and directed by Bill Cote, called Mystery of the Sphinx. The program centered on the research and writings of John Anthony West, a (non-academic) Egyptologist, who, along with Dr. Robert Schoch, a professor of Geology at Boston University, made an astounding discovery on the Great Sphinx of Giza in Egypt.

Our Mission

At Ancient Origins, we believe that one of the most important fields of knowledge we can pursue as human beings is our beginnings. And while some people may seem content with the story as it stands, our view is that there exists countless mysteries, scientific anomalies and surprising artifacts that have yet to be discovered and explained.

The goal of Ancient Origins is to highlight recent archaeological discoveries, peer-reviewed academic research and evidence, as well as offering alternative viewpoints and explanations of science, archaeology, mythology, religion and history around the globe.

We’re the only Pop Archaeology site combining scientific research with out-of-the-box perspectives.

By bringing together top experts and authors, this archaeology website explores lost civilizations, examines sacred writings, tours ancient places, investigates ancient discoveries and questions mysterious happenings. Our open community is dedicated to digging into the origins of our species on planet earth, and question wherever the discoveries might take us. We seek to retell the story of our beginnings. 

Ancient Image Galleries

View from the Castle Gate (Burgtor). (Public Domain)
Door surrounded by roots of Tetrameles nudiflora in the Khmer temple of Ta Phrom, Angkor temple complex, located today in Cambodia. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Cable car in the Xihai (West Sea) Grand Canyon (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Next article