Guest Blogger time for Richard Freeman again. It almost seems silly introducing Richard to you all once again when he makes an appearance as guest blogger several times a week. However, our viewing audience/ readers (whatever you like to call yourselves) is growing so fast that it is certain that some of you missed the last time I introduced him.
Elasmotherium was a gigantic species of rhino the size of an elephant. It bore one very long, straight horn in the centre of its forehead rather than on the snout. It had relatively longer legs than the five known species of modern rhino and could probably gallop at a faster rate, despite its greater size. The modern white rhino has been clocked at 25 mph. As it is, at 5 tons, the largest living rhino it is probable that the smaller species can move faster.
Elasmotherium is usually reconstructed as having fur like the more familiar woolly rhino. It lived in Southern Russia and ranged as far east as Siberia and as far west as Moldavia. They are known to have lived in Europe until the mid Pleistocene. In some areas, it has been postulated that they lingered much longer.
The Evenk people of Russia have, in their folklore, a giant black bull that sports a single horn in the middle of its forehead. Pioneering cryptozoologist Willy Ley postulated that this creature may have been a distorted racial memory of Elasmotherium.
The 10th Century Arab traveller Ahmad ibn Fadlan writes of what may be late surviving Elasmotheriums:
“There is nearby a wide steppe, and there dwells, it is told, an animal smaller than a camel, but taller than a bull. Its head is the head of a ram, and its tail is a bull’s tail. Its body is that of a mule and its hooves are like those of a bull. In the middle of its head it has a horn, thick and round, and as the horn goes higher, it narrows (to an end), until it is like a spearhead. Some of these horns grow to three or five ells depending on the size of the animal. It thrives on the leaves of trees, which are excellent greenery. Whenever it sees a rider, it approaches and if the rider has a fast horse, the horse tries to escape by running fast, and if the beast overtakes them, it picks the rider out of the saddle with its horn, and tosses him in the air, and meets him with the point of the horn, and continues doing so until the rider dies. But it will not harm or hurt the horse in any way or manner.
The locals seek it in the steppe and in the forest until they can kill it. It is done so: they climb the tall trees between which the animal passes. It requires several bowmen with poisoned arrows; and when the beast is in between them, they shoot and wound it unto its death. And indeed I have seen three big bowls shaped like Yemen seashells, that the king has, and he told me that they are made out of that animal’s horn.”
Elasmotherium was certainly larger than a camel, but this may indeed be a garbled account of the creature. An elle is an archaic measurement supposedly representing a man’s arm. It can be anywhere from 27 inches to 37 inches.
This giant rhino may also be behind a strange Persian legend of a savage one-horned beast called the karkadann that was said to attack and kill all other creatures with its one great horn. Ibn Battuta, a Morrocan traveller, wrote of a karkadann he had seen in India, but this may well have been an Indian rhino.
In 1663 the fossil remains of a huge animal were uncovered near Mount Zeunikenberg, in the Quedlinberg area of Germany. They consisted of a huge, straight horn, a skull, two front legs and a spine. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, the acclaimed 17th Century scientist, wrote of it in his unpublished book on biology and geology ‘Protogaea’.
“But we must not ignore that a quadruped unicorn with the size of a horse is to be found in Abyssinia, if we believe Jerome Lobo and Balthasar Tellez. Likewise the skeleton found in the rock in the vicinity of Quedlinburg near Mount Zeunikenberg, in the 63rd year of this century, excavated together with chalk, more nearly resembled the appearance of a terrestrial animal. Otto von Gericke, mayor of Magdeburg, is a witness of the fact; he has adorned our age with his new inventions, and was the first man to invent a pneumatic pump, by which air was drawn from vessels, and wonderful things were demonstrated by this inventor in the assembly of Ratisbonne in the year 1653, in the presence of the Emperor; which afterwards were even wonderfully improved upon by the Englishman Robert Boyle, the highest of men, brother of the Count of Cork in Ireland, who enriched us with a new treasure of experiments. Consequently Gericke takes the opportunity to relate in his published book on the vacuum that the unicorn skeleton was found reclined on the back part of the body, as beasts are accustomed, though the head was raised up, the forehead bearing a long extended horn almost five forearms in length, and as thick as a human leg, but decreasing proportionally. It was crushed and extracted in small parts due to the ignorance of the excavators, though finally the horn with the head and some ribs, and the backbone together with other bones were brought to the Abbess of the region. The same things have been reported to me, and a figure is added, which will not be unworthy to append.”
There is an accompanying sketch of a horse-like skull with a straight horn of great length together with a spine, ribs and a pair of front legs.
Von Gericke himself commented on the find.
“As usual with such brutes its posterior parts were very low and its head raised. Its forehead bore a horn nearly five ells long, as thick as a man’s thigh and gradually tapering. Because of the ignorance and carelessness of the diggers, the skeleton was broken and extracted in pieces. However the horn, which was attached to the head, the backbone and several ribs were brought to the abbess of the town.”
In the book Fate of the Mammoth Claudine Cohen and William Rodarmor note that in 1925 Austrian paleontologist Otheino Abel identified the remains (from Leibniz’s drawing) as a mixture of rhino and mammoth bones. The molar teeth and scapular were those of a mammoth.
But what of the horn? Rhino horn is made of keratin and does not fossilise as well as bone. However, in the Natural History museum in Ullan Bator, Mongolia, I have seen a fossilised Elasmotherium skull with a horn over five feet long. Abel thought the horn was the tusk of a young mammoth but its seems too long and straight. The five elles measurement agrees with the description from Ahmad ibn Fadlan so could the Mount Zeunikenberg unicorn be the mixed remains of a mammoth and an Elasmotherium?
The drawing of the skull looks more like a rhino than an elephant. I have no idea what became of the surviving bones, or if they exist today. It is a shame that the long horn was broken up before it could be examined. Perhaps it was evidence of a westerly outpost of Elasmotherium.