What Extraordinary Discovery Led to Unicorn Cave Magically Transforming into a Cash Cow?
Einhornhöhle, which may be translated as ‘Unicorn Cave’ in English, is a cave located in the Harz, a low mountain range in a highland area Northern Germany. It has been pointed out that the Unicorn Cave is the largest cave in the western Harz that is open to the public. The peculiar name of this cave is derived from the fact that the supposed bones of unicorns were found within it. Today, however, it is known that such bones do not belong to these legendary creatures, but to animals that lived in prehistoric times.
The public entrance to the Unicorn Cave or Einhornhöhle (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
The first mentioning of the Unicorn Cave dates to 1541, when it was known as Zwergenlöcher, which may be translated to mean ‘Dwarf Holes’. It was only in 1663 that the cave became associated with the legendary unicorn. In that year, so-called ‘unicorn bones’ were discovered in the cave, and an account of this discovery was written by Otto von Guericke in the form of a newspaper article. It may be mentioned that von Guericke was a man of science who had a keen interest in the physics of vacuums, his contributions to which are still remembered today, most notably the Magdeburg Hemispheres.
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Faked Unicorn-Skeleton, 1678 by scientist Otto von Guericke, using remains of a Woolly Rhinoceros, a Mammoth and the horn of a Narwhal. Exhibit near the entrance of the Zoo of Osnabrück, Germany. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
von Guericke’s description stated that “The rear portion of the body, as is common in a beast, lay back, head up, but, extending lengthwise from the brow was a horn, the thickness of a human leg, and so in proportion to the length of almost five cubits.” The skeleton, which von Guericke claimed belonged to a unicorn, was in a fact a composition of bones from several different prehistoric animals. The skull and the two front legs of the creature once belonged to a woolly rhinoceros, whilst its vertebrae came from a woolly mammoth. As for its horn, this was probably the tusk of a woolly mammoth, or of a palaeoloxodon, an extinct genus of straight-tusked elephants. Nevertheless, people were convinced by von Guericke’s discovery, and it was even cited by the renowned German polymath Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz in his Protogaea, which was published in 1749, several decades after his death. The remains of this ‘unicorn’ were later sent to the Schölerberg Museum in Osnabrück, where they still reside today.
Natural entrance to the Unicorn Cave (Michael Fiegle CC BY SA 3.0)
It was only with the establishment of modern palaeontology, and excavations in the cave that the myth of the unicorn remains could be dispelled. Prior to this, the bones from the cave were collected by local people, ground into a powder, and sold as medicine. This was due to the prevailing belief that unicorn bones had magical healing powers. It has also been mentioned that even the cave’s stalactites, which resemble unicorn horns, were processed into medicine. As a result of this ‘over-harvesting’, the cave is today devoid of these natural formations.
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The first excavation of the Unicorn Cave was carried out in 1872 by the German scholar Rudolf Virchow. It was Virchow who identified the bones as belonging to various species of extinct animals. Since then the bones of over 70 different species of prehistoric animals, including cave bears and cave lions, have been identified. One explanation of the presence of so many wild animal remains is that the natural entrance of the Unicorn Cave, which is a deep shaft, functions as a trap. Once the animals fell into the cave, there was no way for them to get out again. Additionally, evidence has also been uncovered which suggested that Neanderthals were living in a part of the cave for long periods of time over 100000 years ago. This discovery was made by the excavations conducted between 1985 and 1988 by the Urgeschichte Abteilung (Prehistory Department) of the Niedersächische Landesmuseum, Hannover.
The Unicorn Cave has turned into a tourist attraction. In 2002, the cave was closed to the public, as the association responsible for its maintenance decided to discontinue its services. In the following year, however, the cave could be reopened, as the Förder- und Betreiberverein “Gesellschaft Unicornu fossile”, which is a non-profit society for the protection of the Unicorn Cave, was formed in June 2002, thus effectively taking over the responsibilities of the former association.
Top image: The public entrance to the Unicorn Cave. (CC BY-SA 2.0)
By Wu Mingren
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