Many ancient civilizations believed that the unicorn was a real creature.
“The unicorn, through its intemperance and not knowing how to control itself, for the love it bears to fair maidens forgets its ferocity and wildness; and laying aside all fear it will go up to a seated damsel and go to sleep in her lap, and thus the hunters take it.”
Leonardo Da Vinci’s words in his notebooks reflect the general beliefs of his time. The European culture’s most famous mythical being that ignited imagination and stories for centuries has been well documented long before the medieval and Renaissance period.
The first surviving documents date as far back as 2500 BC. The Indus valley civilizations have produced beautiful seals which depict Unicorn-like creatures with long horns on their foreheads. Ancient Greek culture has produced a few manuscripts in the 6th and 5th century BC which describe unicorns as real and existing animals. Interestingly, unicorns are not mentioned in Greek mythology. Perhaps the most important source of reference about unicorns is the Bible. Numerous passages in the book mention or describe this animal. This is the reason why people during the medieval and early Renaissance period believed that this supernatural being existed, and during that time, a hunt for the unicorn was quite common.
Having all this information in mind, it comes as no surprise that since the dawn of the age of science people have gone to great lengths in order to locate the actual fossil remains of this animal. One such attempt occurred in 1663 when Otto Von Guericke claimed to have reconstructed the animal from the bones found in the Unicorn Cave, which is located in Germany. Later on, it was proved that this two-legged skeleton was constructed from the remains of a mammoth and a wooly rhinoceros. Attempts such as this one laid the groundwork for the excavations that started at the beginning of 19th century.
Instead of picturing a white horse, picturing a furry rhinoceros with a long horn would be much nearer to the existing descriptions of Elasmotherium Sibiricum or “Siberian Unicorn”. This ancient being lived on the territory of Siberia, as its name suggests, for thousands of years. The first fossil remains were found in this area in the early 19th century, and ever since this species has attracted the attention of scientists.
Recent excavation significantly changed our view of this long extinct species and moved the date of their extinction from 350.000 years ago to only 28.000 years ago. In an article published in the American Journal of Applied Science, a team of scientists from Tomsk State University suggests that these 4.5-meter-long creatures survived in the southern parts of Western Siberia longer than anywhere else in their natural habitat.
The team collaborated with the Queen’s University in Belfast that conducted the radiocarbon AMS-method analysis which confirmed that these extraordinary beings roamed the Earth much longer than originally believed. These findings place the long-lost animal in the Upper Paleolithic period which is the period when the first human settlements and cave paintings appear.
Is it possible that Siberian Unicorn was the inspiration for all the stories and visual depictions that appeared over the course of 4.000 thousand years? Perhaps. Other sources of inspiration might have been the one-horned Oryx and the Eland which have often been represented in the cave paintings.
Evidence suggests that Elasmotherium Sibiricum didn’t look anything like the visual representations of Unicorns. But, mythical beings are often quite different than the actual animals on which they were based on. Unicorns are not solely European mythical creatures since they appear in Asian mythology as well. What is interesting is that miniatures, tapestries, paintings and sculptures of the European Unicorn and Chinese Qilin, which is sometimes referred to as Chinese Unicorn, are quite different. But, this is not at all strange, since various other mythical beings are differently represented in different cultures, and in different periods.
Once you consider all the facts and look through the history, it doesn’t seem so bad to let fairy tales be fairy tales. It seems even less harmful to believe that Dragons, Cyclopes, Unicorns and other supernatural beings once ruled the Earth and that our stories are just a far echo of their epical time. The cold-blooded reason seems less important because it removes the myth and the magic from the stories, which has enriched our imagination for centuries.