As it turns out, unicorns did really exist, though they certainly didn’t look much like the gentle, magical horse-like creatures we all imagine—more like huge, hairy rhinos. Scientists recently found evidence indicating the ancient rhinoceros species known as the giant “Siberian unicorn,” thought to have gone extinct 350,000 years ago, actually roamed the earth at the same time as humans, some 29,000 years ago.
Researchers from Russia’s Tomsk State University (TSU) recently analyzed the well-preserved fossilized skull of an Elasmotherium sibiricum, otherwise known as the “Siberian unicorn,” unearthed in the Pavlodar region of Kazakhstan. Though scientists previously believed the species went extinct some 350,000 years ago, the new study’s findings indicate they endured for hundreds of thousands of years after that. In fact, they suggest the huge horned mammals may have shared their vast habitat in western Siberia with modern humans, whom most paleonanthropologists agree evolved in Africa some 200,000 years ago. A human fossil found in 2008 in western Siberia has been dated to 45,000 years ago.
Published in a recent issue of the American Journal of Applied Science, the study included the radiocarbon dating of the skull, conducted at Queen’s University, Belfast, in the United Kingdom. The researchers said it dated back only 29,000 years, and that it most likely belonged to a large male Siberian unicorn. The skull was well preserved, sporting some cracks but no evidence of other deterioration or damage, such as pelletization, gnawing or exfoliation. Though its teeth weren’t preserved, they estimate the E. sibiricum was of mature age.
At their largest, these ancient rhinos were thought to have measured nearly seven feet tall and 15 feet long—a far cry from the delicate unicorns of myth and popular culture. They weighed in at around four tons, and their single horns likely stretched as long as seven feet. Experts say their habitat ranged over a vast expanse from the Don River to the east of modern Kazakhstan, while the new findings indicate a lengthy existence in the region southeast of the West Siberian Plain.
The researchers are now studying how this Siberian unicorn was able to survive so much longer than others of his kind. As TSU paleontologist Andrey Shpanski told Phys.org: “Most likely, the south of Western Siberia was a refúgium, where this rhino persevered the longest in comparison with the rest of its range. There is another possibility that it could migrate and dwell for a while in the more southern areas.”