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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 Beasts of Legend?

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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 appearance 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.

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 )

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.

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.

There is no clear reason why the final Siberian unicorns died out. ( Catmando /Adobe Stock)

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.

Top: Cave art from Rouffignac, France, thought to depict the extinct Elasmotherium. Bottom: Elasmotherium sibiricum.

Top: Cave art from Rouffignac, France, thought to depict the extinct Elasmotherium. ( Public Domain ) Bottom: Elasmotherium sibiricum. (DiBgd/ CC BY SA 3.0 )

From medieval Northern Russia comes a collection of ballads, called “Golubinaia kniga” or “The Book of the Dove,” coming from Zoroastrianism, but with Christian overtones. These ballads show a righteous unicorn battling a lion, representing lies. The unicorn of these tales lived on a Holy mountain, and it was believed to be the mother and father of all animals. This creature saved the world from drought by digging springs of pure and clean water with its horn. At night, it wandered the plains and forged a path with that very same horn.

This same creature appears in other religious texts, however, it is typically seen more as a symbolic creature rather than a real entity. The Arabo-Persian word for unicorn actually conflates unicorn and rhinoceros, looking to the rhinoceros as a bringer of truth and good in the world. In Christianity, the single horn is seen as a symbol of monotheism.

Maiden with Unicorn, tapestry, 15th century (Musée de Cluny, Paris)

Maiden with Unicorn , tapestry, 15th century (Musée de Cluny, Paris). ( Public Domain )

While mythology may point to the actuality of this creature, it is merely circumstantial evidence. More research, and more fossils, must be found before we can know for sure what this beast looked like, and whether or not unicorns were real.

Top Image: A reconstruction of what the Siberian unicorn may have looked like. Source: Elenarts /Adobe Stock

By Veronica Parkes

Updated on March 10, 2021.

References

Hrala, J. (2016) ‘A Fossilised Skull Has Revealed When the Last 'Siberian Unicorn' Lived on Earth.’ http://www.sciencealert.com/a-fossilised-skull-has-revealed-when-the-last-siberian-unicorn-lived-on-earth

Brait, E. (2016) ‘Extinct 'Siberian unicorn' may have lived alongside humans, fossil suggests.’ https://www.theguardian.com/science/2016/mar/29/siberian-unicorn-extinct-humans-fossil-kazakhstan

Perry, J. (2016) ‘Real 'Siberian unicorn' remains found.’ http://www.cnn.com/2016/03/29/living/real-unicorn-remains/

Richard, M.G. (2016) ‘Giant Siberian unicorn may have existed at the same time as humans, fossil find hints.’ http://www.mnn.com/earth-matters/animals/stories/giant-siberian-unicorn-may-have-existed-same-time-humans-fossilized-skull-hints

Shpansky, A. (2016) ‘The Quaternary Mammals from Kozhamzhar Locality (Pavlodar Region, Kazakhstan)’ http://thescipub.com/PDF/ajassp.2016.189.199.pdf

Comments

Pete Wagner's picture

The other thing is, the ancient cave peoples probably domesticated some wolly rhinos (tried at least via rearing litters of captured babies) as they would likely have more successfully with the mammoths and mastodons (on the American continent).  This is in light of the nature of modern elephant, which are known as social animals compared with the modern rhino, which is considered solidary.  Evidence of using rhino horn (formed from kerotin, like hair and fingernail) for whatever purpose would be hard to find being that it does not have the long-term durability of tusk ivory, which is essentially long-lived tooth material.   But the horn would certainly have uses as a big cup of sorts, similar to how the Viking culture adapted certain horns, for drinking and also for its ‘good luck/Thorish’ powers.  

Nobody gets paid to tell the truth.

Pete Wagner's picture

There’s no good reason why modern man shouldn’t be pursuing restoring of all the ancient big animals using cloning techniques.  There can be no substitutes, regardless of how well accepted are the theories or explanations, to observing the real animal in life.

Nobody gets paid to tell the truth.

So, is this the inspiration for the mudhorn character and the Din Djarin clan signet in the 2019 Star Wars Disney+ television series: The Mandalorian?

jeffstevens

Was its horn actually that huge? Wouldn't it experience difficulty with the measure of weight to hold up its head? Except if it had insane neck strength

Painters Germantown

Some animal species appear and others disappear, so goes the world. In any case I learned a lot about unicorns (not the ones we find in mythology).

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