Unicorn Hunters of Ye Olden Days
The King James Bible has unicorns in it. There are nine separate references in the Old Testament to these magical beasts (Num 23:22 & 24:8, Deut 33:17, Job 39:9-10, Psalm 22:21, 29:6 & 92:10, Is 34:7) and baring in mind the Old Testament gives historical records of ancient culture, are we to conclude there were genuine unicorns roaming the Earth at this time?
Well, probably not. The King James Bible is a 1611 translation of the Biblical books, derived in part from a 4th Century Latin translation called The Vulgate, based on a 3rd Century BC Greek translation called The Septuagint, based on earlier texts written in Hebrew, Persian and a few other languages.
In the original Hebrew, the animal being referred to is called a re’em and unfortunately we have lost the identity of whatever this animal was. All we know for definite is that it was a strong creature with...ironically...more than one horn. Which is kinda weird. In Deuteronomy 33:17 the writer talks about the horns (plural) of a single re’em so it was obviously not believed to be a unicorn and nobody knows how the term 'unicorn' entered the language.
The hypothesis I find most reasonable is that re’em is close to the older Assyrian word rimu, which referred to a species of now-extinct ox called, in English, an auroch. In Assyrian art, aurochs were depicted in side profile (see below) giving them the appearance of a one-horned animal and thus early writers may have mistook auroch paintings for one-horned animals.
It could also be that "one-horn" was a nickname for an actually two-horned beast. Like the species Bradypus Variegatus which is nicknamed "three-toed sloth" despite obviously having twelve toes. The name is not meant to be taken literally, but understood in a certain context. Just like the equally disappointing Vampyroteuthis infernalis, more commonly known as a "vampire squid" despite being neither a vampire nor a squid. Sometimes we just give animals dumb names.
Either way, rimu in Assyrian seems to have become re’em in Hebrew, which became ‘monokeros’ in Greek (which means one-horn) and then finally 'unicorn' in Latin and thus English. It is tempting to ridicule the early translators for being careless, but we shouldn't judge them too harshly. Unicorns were once beleived to be genuine creatures. Even the Greek scholar Ctesias described a one-horned beast native to India which he called a rhinokeros (nose-horn). That animal was almost certainly a rhinoceros, but once again a series of mistranslations and misunderstandings led many to believe Ctesias had discovered unicorns in the Asiain subcontinent.
The idea of unicorns being horses with spiralled horns seems to have begun during the middle ages, probably due to sailors bringing home narwhal tusks (which are spiraled) and selling them to buyers as "unicorn horns". Even the throne of Denmark is constructed from narwhal tusk but was originally claimed to be bona fide unicorn.
For obvious reasons, unicorns were perceived as creatures who refused to be captured and many houses of Scotland during the 1400s displayed unicorns on their banner-crests to represent a refusal to submit to English rule. Even today, the Unicorn is the official emblematic animal of Scotland (the Welsh flag features a dragon for similar reasons).
It is only in the last couple of centuries that people have finally accepted unicorns are probably not real. However, I am pleased to inform you that there is nothing about them which is biologically far-fetched. After all, many different species have evolved horns. There are breeds of lizard, mammal, fish and even one species of bird (the cassowary) which have horny structures on their heads, so it's obviously something evolution is fine with.
The primary function of horns is for fighting rivals or predators but they also serve for the purpose of attracting a mate. Because living things use most of their energy on movement, brain-activity and maintaining a healthy immune system, if your immune system is in perfect order you have energy to spare. What better way to advertise that than adorning yourelf with unnecessary decorations which would hinder a lesser creature?
It’s called the Zahavi Handicap Principle and is often used to explain why certain animal species evolve completely unnecessary features; even features which serve as a handicap. Peacocks grow spectacular tails, giraffes grow inconvenient necks and we may even see evidence of it in humans (the only species whose female members have engorged breasts all year round rather than exclusively at the time of ovulation). So why not horses too?
Unicorns of the Sea
Horses do not have horns of course, and usually attract their mates via a combination of elaborate tail flicks and enticing urination (yeah, I know) but there is no reason they could not have evolved down the route of growing horns. In fact, some of them sort of did.
It’s widely accepted that life began in the oceans and eventually made its way to land, but it can happen in reverse sometimes. That’s what whales are. Whales were originally land-dwelling creatures, similar to hippos, but gradually moved into the ocean as a permanent residence, losing their legs over time. That’s why whales have useless hip-bones under their blubber. Sometimes they use these hips as slightly ineffecient sex-anchors to attach themselves to prospective mates, but the shape and design is clear. Whales used to be hippies.
That is also why whales and dolphins move their spines vertically as they swim, reminiscent of horses galloping, while fish (who have always been aquatic) move their spines horizontally. Whales and dolphins are effectively trotting and cantering through the ocean. Now, since narwhals are a species of whale and whales are descendants of horsey creatures, evolution can, in a certain sense, if you are very patient, give horns to horses.
But I don't want to wait millions of years, tim!
Of course you don't. You want a live unicorn without having to rely on the chance-nature of Darwinism and hippos who like to swim. Is there a scientific way of justifying the existence of real equine unicorns? The answer (magically) is maybe. Provided we invoke the right kind of tumor!! And I know what you're thinking at this point. This is a family-friendly blog and I’ve just given unicorns cancer. But fear not, the kind of tumors we are talking about will be totally safe. Twilight Sparkle will go unharmed if you bear with me...
A tumor is not an infectious disease caused by a bacteria, virus or parasite, it’s certain cells of the body growing too much, too fast. If cells in one area start growing at an accelerated rate they begin absorbing nutrients away from other cells or squashing everything in their vicinity to one side, damaging the organs and preventing them from doing their job. That’s when a tumor becomes a cancer. But tumors can be harmles. In fact, to avoid the negative association, let's call them "neoplasms" which is a friendlier-sounding word for the same thing.
Since neoplasms are cells growing out of control, what can sometimes happen is that the cells get so excited they mistakenly believe they are a different part of the body and turn into that instead of what they’re supposed to. This is possible because every cell’s nucleus contains a full DNA strand, with the genetic information necessary to become any part of the body. A cell in your kidney contains the information required to build a heart or a lung and if the cell is activated incorrectly (which can happen if it’s growing too fast) you can grow body parts in the wrong place.
It’s called a teratoma and although it sounds like something from a David Cronenberg movie, it’s absolutely real. It is rare to develop whole organs though (the creepiest example is an instance reported in 1999 by doctor Otto Herwart who discovered a fully grown eye inside a neoplasm) but keratin, which horns are made from, is straightforward for your body to produce so teratomas can easily manufacture horns.
It’s a rare condition called cornu cutaneum and in all honesty nobody knows what causes it. The skin spontaneously begins growing a neoplasm on its surface which overproduces keratin and thus ends up forming a horn. They are completely harmless and easily removed since they have no bones or nerve endings, but my advice would be not to Google image-search them right before a meal.
The most astonishing instance of this condition in humans is that of Zhang Ruifang, a 101-year old woman from China who grew a pair of horns on either side of her forehead in 2009 which she refused to have removed, despite them earning her the obvious nickname in her neighborhood of ‘devil-woman’.
And it’s not just humans who can get horns. There are reports of dogs, cats, cows and, fortunately, even horses, developing horn-bumps as a result of a neoplasm. In fact, Unicorns are not only within the realm of possibility, one or two may have existed by accident.
Yes, you read that right. I, a public school teacher with a responsibility to educate future generations, am throwing my lot in and saying “sure, there has probably been at least one unicorn”. Horses have been around for over 50 million years and today there are an estimated 60 million roaming the Earth, mostly in the wild. Chances are that at least once, somewhere, purely by chance, one of those horses developed a teratoma neoplasm which gave it a horn between the eyes.
I love science, let me tell you why.