The unicorn from Magdeburg

There are many myths and legends about unicorns. But who actually says that they were particularly aesthetic creatures? In Magdeburg, you can marvel at the remains of what may have been a disabled unicorn and be enchanted by the sight of it - even if you don't otherwise believe in them.

. . . . . .

Maybe some of you still know the famous experiment of the "Magdeburg hemispheres" from physics lessons, with which Otto von Guericke proved the vacuum in 1656.

He was also the mayor of Magdeburg, invented the air pump on the side and tried his hand as an archaeologist. His most famous work can still be admired today in the Museum of Natural History, although it rather belongs in a collection of curiosities.

On Twitter it got the title as the "worst fossil reconstruction in human history". And when you imagine what it must have looked like alive, it gives you nightmares:

Source: twitter

The original legend of the unicorn

In the imagination of people unicorns have always been present. Today they are mostly depicted as a noble white horse with a large spiral horn on its forehead. Some stories also tell of a goatee and cloven hooves or wings like Pegasus.

These traditions go back a long way and are represented in numerous regions on earth. The first written evidence of the mythical creature can be found in ancient Greece. Even before that, unicorn-like creatures were depicted on 4000-year-old seals of the Indus culture.

Most likely, the origins come from India or Southeast Asia. They may have been inspired by the Indian one-horned rhinoceros (Rhinoceros unicornis). Likewise, fossil finds of the woolly rhinoceros (Coelodonta antiquitatis), the woolly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius) and the aurochs (Bos primigenius) could have been a source of inspiration.

Recent research shows that the almost 5 meter long Siberian rhinoceros (Elasmotherium sibiricum) existed at least 39,000 years ago and lived at the same time as modern humans. Its remains are believed to be the Siberian unicorn and could also be the basis of this fantasy figure. East Siberian peoples report the slaying of giant black unicorns.

Elasmotherium after a mural from the cave of Rouffignac

In any case, the scientists of the 17th century were still firmly convinced that there were fringe phenomena such as talking dogs, geniuses, prophets and, of course, unicorns. Otto von Guericke was part of this "philosophy of imaginable things", which advocated both legitimate and fantastic theories.

The mystery of the Magdeburg skeleton

In 1663, a bizarre collection of fossilized bones was found in a gypsum quarry on the Seveckenberg in Saxony-Anhalt. This German steppe is known for fossils from the Ice Age and beyond. 

About five years later, Guericke is said to have tried to reconstruct the skeleton that was allegedly broken during the salvage. According to records, it consisted of the large skull of a herbivore, two large shoulder blades, two long legs and a horn, as well as 20 other bones.

If this reconstruction ever existed, it was eventually lost. In 1704, the Giessen physician and scholar Michael Bernhard Valentini made a drawing based on the notes and sketches.

Drawings after Valentini 1714 (a) and after Leibniz 1749 (b)

This picture was corrected by Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibnitz according to his own ideas and published in his book "Protogaea" from 1749. In it, the monster of Quedlinburg is described in chapter 35. It was a posthumously published treatise on earth sciences and the philosopher's attempt to develop "the seeds of a new science called natural geography" including unicorns.

Since Bartholin has proved that unicorns (once one of the most curious and rare ornaments of the cabinets of natural history, but now abandoned to the admiration of the people) are descended from fishes of the northern sea, we may assume that the unicorn fossil found in our landscape has the same origin.

This skeleton was broken and taken out in pieces due to the ignorance and carelessness of the excavators. But the horn, together with the head and some ribs, as well as the backbone and some bones, were brought to the abbess of the place.

In the 1990s, taxidermist Urs Oberli finally created a plastic reconstruction of the Guericke unicorn, which we can still admire today.

3D model of the Guericke unicorn

The confusions behind the model

Just as the bone finds must have puzzled Mr. Guericke at the time, the question of the original source of the reconstruction is still a scientific debate today.

It is not clear whether the model or the drawings came first. And whether they came first from Leibniz and were then attributed to Guericke or whether, in the end, perhaps neither had anything to do with it.

Author of the first report with illustration was Johannes Meyer, astronomer and treasurer of the abbess of Quedlinburg. His German text had been partly translated differently by the two. Discovery, excavation, recovery and reconstruction of the unicorn were attributed to Guericke only by Othenio Abel (first in 1918 and several times thereafter), without giving a source for it.

Its story of supposed origin has since been embellished with much imagination. And so it appears again and again on the Internet and social media. However, it is usually falsely claimed there that it is the deformed remains of a woolly rhinoceros.

The smorgasbord of his bones

According to a common theory, it was initially a chimera made from fossils of various animals.

According to paleo- and archaeozoologists, the horn is most likely the tusk of a narwhal. These whales live in the Arctic waters around Greenland, Canada and Russia. The upper left canine tooth of narwhal males forms a spirally twisted horn up to over 3 meters long. Its findings are another possible cause for unicorn myths.

The skull looks like that of a woolly rhinoceros, and the shoulder blades and the bones of the two front legs probably come from the extinct and also rather mystical woolly mammoth.

Despite the possible explanation, it remains almost a miracle how all these animals should have come together in one place.

Today, the last unicorn is part of the permanent exhibition in the Natural History Museum of Magdeburg and can be found directly above the main staircase. You can also visit the unicorn cave near the mountain town of Quedlinburg.




Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.