Throughout human history, different cultures have turned to myth to explain their observations of the natural world. Sometimes when encountering strange new animals or buried fossils, this impulse to explain their surroundings could get a little out of hand and the stories could get, well…a little bit exaggerated.
Over the years, paleontologists, historians and anthropologists have worked to uncover the origins of these stories. Today we tackle seven creatures you’ve probably heard about in fairytales, folklore and epic fantasy — and explore the fascinating truth behind the myth.
Photo credit: Rob Boudon
No one is really sure where the unicorn myth comes from, but there are a number of potential sources. It’s possible the stories are based on recollections of now-extinct, one-horned hooved animals like the Elasmotherium, an ancient relative of the rhino. Some also believe that mutant dear, goats or antelope with only a single horn may have been mistaken for a new species. In the middle ages, Narwhal horns were frequently passed off as unicorn horns by merchants, lending a sense of believability to the tales.
Perhaps the most compelling theory of all? Maybe rhinos are just fat unicorns. The earliest account of the “unicorn” was given by Ctesias, a 4th century Greek doctor who never saw the creatures himself. He simply copied down descriptions of creatures mentioned by Indian travelers. Modern experts believe he probably fused descriptions of several different animals in his account, and that the inspiration for the unicorn myth was probably the Indian rhinoceros. This seems pretty plausible when you realize that 13th century traveler Marco Polo at one point misidentified a Javan rhinoceros as a unicorn.
Photo credit: Bridget Coila
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