Science

Unicorns Were Real and Ugly as Hell

According to new research, unicorn-like mammals roamed the earth with humans. We got a brony’s reaction to the news.

Emma Bracy

Emma Bracy

Photo via Flickr user Amy Goodman

Unicorns feature prominently in all manners of ancient folklore, typically functioning as wild, elusive creatures who possess horns, blood, and hair that all contain phenomenal power. Indeed, unicorns are what the most magical dreams are made of. And now our dreams have come true: according to new research published in the American Journal of Applied Sciences, the Elasmotherium sibiricum, a land mammal originally discovered decades ago, died out approximately 29,000 years ago—meaning, unicorn-like creatures frolicked alongside prehistoric man. Originally it was believed that these creatures died out as far back as 350,000 years ago, before humans toiled on the earth.

"Our research makes adjustments in the understanding of the environmental conditions in the geologic time in general," Andrey Shpanski, one of the researchers that discovered the skull, told Phys.org. "Understanding of the past allows us to make more accurate predictions about natural processes in the near future."

A drawing of what these "unicorns" might have looked like. Photo via Wikimedia Commons/Heinrich Harder.

Unfortunately, "understanding the past" does not mean that science will point to unicorns' supposed magical properties anytime soon. "Unicorns as we think of them today never existed; the stories probably rose out of travelers' tales and misinterpretations of horns like rhinoceros' horns or narwhal horns," Dorothy Ann Bray, associate professor at McGill University and expert in folklore and mythology, tells Broadly.

"A book of animals from the third century, called the Physiologus (compiled in Alexandria, Eygpt) gives a description of a unicorn, which medieval bestiaries borrowed from," Bray says. The bestiaries expanded on the moral meaning of the unicorn in a Christian context, which is how the unicorn became a symbol of purity and a symbol of Christ. In medieval times, it was thought that only a virgin could tame a unicorn and "the unicorn horn was supposed to protect against poison; ground into a powder, it was supposed to cure a variety of illnesses."

However contrived, the interpretation of unicorns as horse-like horned beauties with the power to cure or enchant has endured within not only folklore, but popular culture (and its unfaltering offshoots) as well.

On the uncomfortably popular My Little Pony, unicorn characters are "on the top of the list in the [the show world's] hierarchy, since they are able to perform magic and do feats which may be deemed impossible by some," says Mohammed Ali Arsha, a self-professed expert on the cartoon.

Arshad has been an adult My Little Pony fan since 2012, though he insists he is not "brony." He simply "enjoys the show for what it is, and interacts with the community and fans that revolve around it." He also knows a lot about the show's characters, which include different "races," as he calls them—including "normal earth ponies, pegasi, griffons," and of course, unicorns.

When told about the new unicorn discovery, Arshad says he is "happy to know that things that we thought were part of our imagination and stories can be real if you look hard enough."

Arshad isn't turned off by the Siberian unicorn's unsightly appearance, saying "they lack the elegance of [My Little Pony] unicorns, and looks more like they might be related to the modern rhinoceros, but that is to be expected since they lived thousands of years ago." He was even able to find inspiration in the Siberian unicorn's story. Arshad tells me during our chat, "you never know what amazing thing you might find if you have a strong determination and belief in yourself," adding that "maybe next time, we'll hear mermaids are real *fingers crossed* [sic]."

Fingers definitely crossed.