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Thursday, 28 April 2011

Revisions and Additions to "Three Kinds of Unicorns"

A reconstruction of Pliny's Unicorn as posted by Tiina 'Aarnia' Aumala on Elfwood

But that the fiercest animal is the Unicorn, which in the rest of the body resembles a horse, but in the head a stag, in the feet an elephant, and in the tail a boar, and has a deep bellow, and a single black horn three feet long projecting from the middle of the forehead. They say that it is impossible to capture this animal alive. - Pliny the Elder (1st century)
This description of Monokeros, the unicorn, said to live in India, made it to numerous medieval bestiaries, forming the base for the mythical unicorn known in west European lore. However, as we can see, the description is far from the antelopean creature seen in the accompanying illustrations, and nothing like the white cloven-hooved horned horses of modern fantasy.
Let's assume for a moment that Pliny's text is a fairly accurate description of a yet undiscovered mammal. A robust beast of horse-like features, not unlike a rhino either. It would therefore stand to reason that the unicorn is a perissodactylid, a member of a once much more diverse mammalian clade that includes horses, rhinos, tapirs as well as such strange extinct creatures as calicotheres. Based on this reasoning I tried to illustrate Pliny's description in ways the medieval illustrators wouldn't - or indeed couldn't.

Several commentators recognised this as a smooth-coated version of Elasmotherium and many said it was an unusually lovely reconstruction. I would agree: this would be the version that the Indus seals represent, from the Thar desert and Northern India. It would seem that the Central-Asiatic version would have the shaggier coat. This one would be commonly-called Kardakhan or Re'em if it is the same as the Unicorn of the Bible. It is almost certainly the Unicorn of the Indus Civilization's stamp-seals.

Now I have been carrying on a conversation with Dr. Koldo Gondra, who believes that the fossil antelope Procamptoceras is the origin of the Unicorn legend. My personal preference ifs for other candidates but because we are discoursing in such a friendly manner I chose to give an airing to that theory also. Here is the translated text from a Spanish-Language website that espouses the theory:


The Unicorn is one of the most suggestive mythological creatures. Considered symbol of the inspiring purity and of legend multitude, one is in the border between the fable and the allegory, apparently very moved away of the real world and in metaphor of the wild and indomitable nature that only yields before the presence of a maid. In medieval Europe, but also in places like Africa, India, China or America, the belief in this fantastic animal has been ingrained in different traditions. Nevertheless, this existence could have a real base.
We know for almost two centuries that an animal of these characteristics is impossible from the biological point of view. This data could have been the definitive death certificate of the legend of unicorn, of not being because the nature, sometimes, also makes its small traps. At the end of the Villafranchian period of the Pleistocene, that finalized a million ago years, the unicorns inhabited the European forests, at least,… or animal whose aspect was practically identical to gathered in the different traditions and legend. Clear that one was not a fantastic animal, but of an antelope of meat and bone whose scientific name is Procamptoceras brivatense. It had two very straight horns prepared in line, but that when being very next to each other and being covered by a single horn sheath, they offered the appearance of a single and it in center releases visible spear of his head.

Reconstruction of the Procamptoceras from a German-Language Paleontology site

Fossil evidences

It could be this one biological explanation for the legend of the unicorn? It is possible, although it could be objected that it does a million years were no human witnesses of the fates of these creatures in the European continent. Nevertheless, such point of view can absolutely not be correct… The found most recent bones of these singular unicornios antelopes have around a million years of antiquity, but that does not constitute any test that they have not lived until much more recent times. We do not forget that, in paleontology, the absence of fossil evidences is not a test of the absence of an animal, since it has been verified in multitude of occasions with the discovery of considered creatures extinguished. The Procamptoceras could have survived until more recent times and its apparition, with that unique great horn in center of its head, would have been the germ of the legend of the unicorn.
Another possible indication survival of true unicorn until historical times, provides small seals pertaining to the civilization of Mohenjo-Daro, in Pakistan. This culture, that appeared in the valley of the Hindu 5,500 years ago, left like legacy several thousands of small recorded small stamp-seals, the majority with animal representations. One thing is, since they have confirmed recent carried out shootings in the region, a portion of the existing fauna in the zone during that time: rhinos, elephants, buffalos and also animal of voluminous body equipped with a long horn in the forehead. These unicorns, that appear approximately in the quarter of stamp fields, do not have the streamlined aspect of the mythological representations, but one more an appearance more dumpy than suggests, like the other small seals, would reproduce real animal.

[Ancient Persian Goat- or Antelope-Unicorn, possibly even meant to represent an Oryx]

I suspect that these passages are pretty close copies of Dr. Kolo Gondra's work because much the same words are repeated over and over again at the various sites.

Against this view only I have found another posting:

The "unicorn" that if there were
Hello everyone

When you talk of unicorns, you must not say that they are mythical beings, but legendary. Is not the same myth than legend. The myth is an invented explanation to a question or an important question. The legend is a fact that distorted time and shaped the same time. The legends always have an outbreak of reality.

Unicorns in prehistory there were not white horses, antelopes, but the family Bovidae. In the Pleistocene, and disappeared in the High Antiquity have filed for science at Procamptoceras Brivatense , although it is true that despite having the appearance of having only one horn, it was actually a sheath that covered 2 that were close together.

However, the real unicorn would Tsaidamotherium , who lived in the Miocene (22-2 million years ago). It was an antelope with one horn in the middle of his forehead. Both species are classified by science. They were "unicorns" and they only had a horn.

To emphasize that for the Greeks and Romans, and Babylonians and Hindus before, unicorns were horses, but antelope and deer, were not white, says Ctesias (which also hits with the description of its true color, the Tsaidamotherium) .

The conversion of the unicorn legend was given in the Middle Ages, Isidore (sixth century AD), in his "Etymologies." That gave him a white horse with a spiraling horn, impossible to catch unless you use bait is a virgin, San Isidoro also invented the magical powers of animal (capable of destroying the poison by touch with the horn, etc) .

But if you look, even in the Middle Ages, continued to paint and draw the unicorn and deer (Cluny tapestries, for example) and still have, even if it were represented as equine, goat's beard and cloven hooves like deer ( hooves not typical).

Remember: the unicorn is a real basis in nature, and he is entitled Biology and Paleontology: the Tsaidamotherium and Procamptoceras brivatense

I had been focusing on Tsaidamotherium because I had been focusing especially on traditions of the Oriental unicorn amd I was struck by how the animal's mismatched central horns could look like a single forked (stag's) horn. However it does turn out after some research that Procamtoceras and Tsaidamotherium are very closely related and in lfe they would appear to be of similar size, shape and habits. There is another possible Cryptid related to them in Africa that could be represented in primitive art there, Mesembriportax, which was touched on by Christine Janis in CRYPTOZOOLOGY magazine along with several other peculiar ungulates. I had planned to discuss them here but it shall have to wait for another time. At this point I am only saying that Tsaidamotherium had a great many relatives, several of which could have had the appearance of having but a single horn in life: see list at the end of this blog posting. The important thing for my thesis is that Procamptoceras and Tsaidamotherium were both related to the current chamois of Europe, and about the same size, colouring and habits: to quote the Larousse encyclopedia on the matter:

One of the representatives of caprinés, Oioceros of China, of Kenya and Balkans, was same size that the goral of today, had spiral horns and liked itself in the rough grounds. One generally admits that the rupicaprini correspond to the ancestral forms of the caprini, another tribe of caprinés which includes/understands the goats, the moufflons, the thar and the bharal. Rupicaprini and caprini started to evolve/move separately during miocene.

Of Asian origin, the ancestors of the chamois would have colonized little by little, the high mountains of Europe. Among these rupicaprini, one knows Procamptoceras brivatense, chamois resembling a goat. But the evolution of the Rupicapra kind remains a mystery because the oldest bones that one found date only from the end of pleistocene in Europe, i.e. there are 30 000 to 40 000 years. At this point in time the displacement of the glaciers of the north of Europe and the Alps obliged the chamois to flee the tops to gain less low territories, the zones of average and basic altitudes, with the less hard climate. That explains why one found fossils of chamois in almost all the countries of Europe, in particular in France, in the departments close to the Alps, of the Vosges, of the Massif Central and the Pyrenees, where it bears the name of isard today.

It is only after the last glaciation - that of Würm -, several thousands of years after, that the chamois again colonized the forests and the rocks of the higher areas where they remained so far.

There are indeed a few genuine Unicorn traditions from Europe, in the Carpathians, in parts of Poland and Czechoslavakia and in the Pyrennes, which might be persisting Procamptoceras
but described in legends as Unicorns. And it is hard to say if the unicorns that may have survived into recent times were both Tsaidamotherium and Procamptoceras or one persistant genus that happened to develop species which resembled either of those genera. But doubtless we are still talking some very close relative. Possibly even Mesembriportax in Africa, although that might be only a misunderstood Oryx again.

Best Wishes, Dale D.

Dr. Koldo Gondra wishes also that I specify the Bibliographic resources:

Koldo Gondra del Campo "El Unicornio, La leyenda en E.H". Aunia. ISBN 978-84-933503-7-6 V. XXI

Koldo Gondra "Mito y realidad del unicornio". Deusto University. Antropología Cultural, 2008.

Koldo Gondra "El Unicornio: la Leyenda". 2007 Aunia Cultural

Bjorn Kurten of Sweden and Miguel Seguí, of Catalunya (Barcelona University), 2000-2001 (Biology Database)

And Doctor Koldo Gondra also writes
"In Facebook I created one little page of unicorns (information, images, photogaphs, etc)for Unicornios"---->

Goat with same sort of horns as Procamptoceras.

Mammalia - Pecora - Bovidae

Procamptoceras was named by Schaub (1923). It is not counted as a living species.

It was assigned to Bovidae by Carroll (1988).

Species lacking formal opinion data P. bivratense, P. brivatense
Sister genera

Antilospira, Benicerus, Bibos, Bootherium (syn. Symbos), Bucapra, Cambayella, Criotherium, Damalavus, Damalops, Deperetia, Dorcadoryx, Dorcadoxa, Eosyncerus, Eotragus, Euceratherium (syn. Aftonius, Preptoceras), Gallogoral, Gangicobus, Gazellospira, Gobiocerus, Helicoportax, Helicotragus, Hemibos, Hemistrepsiceros, Hesperidoceras, Hesperoceras, Hezhengia, Homoiodorcas, Hydaspicobus, Hypsodontus, Indoredunca, Kabulicornis, Kobikeryx, Kubanotragus, Leptobos, Leptotragus, Lyrocerus, Makapania, Megalotragus, Megalovis, Menelikia, Mesembriacerus, Mesembriportax, Microtragus, Miotragocerus, Moschiola, Neotragocerus, Nisidorcas, Olonbulukia, Orasius, Orchonoceros, Oreonager, Oreotragus, Orygotherium, Pachygazella, Pachyportax, Pachytragus, Palaeoreas, Palaeoryx, Parabos, Paraprotoryx, Paratragocerus, Parmularius, Parurmiatherium, Perimia, Platybos, Platycerabos, Pliotragus, Praeovibos, Proamphibos, Procobus, Prodamaliscus, Proleptobos, Prosinotragus, Prostrepsiceros, Protoryx, Protragelaphus, Protragocerus, Pseudobos, Pseudoeotragus, Pseudotragus, Pultiphagonides, Qurliqnoria, Rabaticeras, Rhynchotragus, Rhynotragus, Ruticeros, Samokeros, Selenoportax, Shensispira, Simatherium, Sinoreas, Sinoryx, Sinotragus, Sivacapra, Sivaceros, Sivacobus, Sivadenota, Sivaportax, Sivatragus, Sivoreas, Sivoryx, Soergelia, Spirocerus, Sporadotragus, Strepsiportax, Strogulognathus, Tchaltacerus, Thaleroceros, Toribos, Torticornis, Tossunnoria, Tragocerus, Tragoportax, Tragoreas, Tragospira, Tsaidamotherium, Turritragus, Ugandax, Vishnucobus


  1. I only know one thing---they missed the ark

  2. Actually there is more than one story about the Unicorns and Noah's Ark, which partly reinforces the idea that there is more than one kind and they are physically very different. You are probably familiar with the Irish folksong in which the unicorns only wanted to play and could not be induced to go into the eark, but there is a Jewish tradition that the big black Re'em with the Elasmotherium-like huge horn was just too big to fit inside and had to ride on the outside...only there was a wave that washed it away during the voyage and thus the species did not survive.

    It is a more recent addition to the tradition that the Unicorns were all extinct. As recently as 1800, there was a belief that the Unicorns were not to be found in their old haunts and were dying out, but the general feeling was that they persisted in the more hidden corners of the world-in Darkest Africa and in Tibet both being specifically stated. By the turn of the twentieth century, hope was generally abandoned and almost everybody admitted there probably were none left. And so that is the attitude at present. In 1500 or 1600, though, few people would have believed it.

    Best Wishes, Dale D.

  3. I also documented the possibility that late-surviving Procamptoceras was the origin of the unicorn legend, on p. 173 of my book In Search of Prehistoric Survivors (1995). And in the unicorn chapter of my book Dr Shuker's Casebook (2008), I survey a wide range of unicorn types, including such little-known variants as a woolly-coated form and even a web-footed type.

  4. Thank you for posting, Karl: we certainly would not want to leave your contributions out! It seems out of the types we had represented here, the Elasmotherium seems to come in a woolier-coated and a smoother-coated variation, probably having to do with seasonal changes but also possibly some geographical variation involved also. And there is a separate entry for African unicorned-rhinoceroces, which were very nearly counted as "Known" animals on occasion in the past.

    By webfooted ones I assume you mean the Capchurch? I do not know how authoritative the webbed feet were in that instance, but the creature was supposed to be aquatic. It may be that the feet were given to it solely to explain its habit of wading.

    If you have any good reconstructions for Procamptoceras I should ike to see them, for frankly all the best ones I have found show a rather ungraceful and unappealing conformation.

    Odell Shepard's book Lore of the Unicorn is incidentally online at the link:

    Best Wishes, Dale D.


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