Did unicorns exist? New research traces cultural traditions to find their origins

How real were the unicorns? A new paper looks at how European colonizers misunderstood the reality of the mythical beast in art of indigenous people.
Paul Ratner
Cave paintings of mythical unicorn-like creatures
One-horned antelope shown from various angles at a site southeast of Molteno. Notice the yellow and white serpent.

Credit: Cambridge Archaeological Journal (2023). 

Among the many mythological creatures conjured up by human imagination over our history, one of the most persistent has been the unicorn, a white horse-like beast with a large horn protruding from its forehead. Mentions of the unicorn, seen as a symbol of purity and grace and often-endowed with magical powers, go back thousands of years to the Bible and to European art and storytelling traditions.

Unicorns have also been a mainstay in modern culture, with numerous appearances in films and animations. But has a unicorn ever existed as a real creature? Its sheer ubiquity in Western culture makes the case that there’s some truth to its reality. But how do you separate fact from fiction?

In a new paper, Dr. David M. Witelson of the Rock Art Research Institute School of Geography at the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa, tackles the subject of how culturally-specific perceptions of the unicorn among European colonizers may have played a role in misinterpreting the stories of indigenous oral traditions. 

A cultural misunderstanding

Dr. Witelson relates how when the British colonizers arrived in South Africa, they wore unicorns on their uniforms and, to their amazement, found the locals being aware of the animal. Once the colonists discovered that ancient rock art in the area featured unicorn-like animals, they were sure the animal must’ve been spotted at some point in the region and set out to find it. These efforts, unsurprisingly, met with little success, leading some to claim that perhaps the rock paintings were really of antelopes or rhinoceroses. 

The analysis by Dr. Witelson, however, suggests another explanation of why the colonizers didn’t find unicorns in South Africa. Witelson believes that the San people actually had a completely different meaning that they ascribed to the unicorn-like creatures they painted. Important to their mythology is a one-horned rain creature that’s very similar to the European vision of a unicorn. Of course, it’s rather imaginary. 

Witelson traced recorded oral traditions and found that the areas where the mythical one-horned animals were supposed to live were mountains to the north where rains would end up once they pass. The descriptions of such animals who, according to Witelson, were essentially representations of the rain in animal form, would be told to early colonists who immediately connected them to the unicorns of their legends. The colonists took this literally and likely didn’t make the distinction that these were creatures of stories and myth, ascribing to them a reality that did not actually exist. 

Interesting Engineering (IE) reached out to Dr. David M. Witelson for more details on his work.

The following exchange has been lightly edited for clarity and flow.

Interesting Engineering: Do your investigations into the appearance of the unicorn in different cultures provide an insight into the unicorn’s actual existence? Does its appearance across many cultures provide any evidence that it was a real-animal?

Dr. Witelson: No. There is no evidence that the unicorn was ever a real, biological animal. Cultural similarities concerning unicorns should be regarded skeptically. Is there demonstrable genuine shared historical origin?

IE: How did the European perception of the unicorn affect the stories of the South African unicorn?

In the colonial period, European ideas about the unicorn were imposed on indigenous South African ones. The similarities (one-horned, swift, dangerous, hard to catch) facilitated the mixing of ideas, perhaps when people from different cultural backgrounds talked around the topic or shared stories. At the same time, it seems that local beliefs were generally dismissed and disregarded in favor of European ones, which is not surprising given the unequal power relationships in the colonial period. Europeans simply weren’t that interested in the beliefs of local peoples. Different communities (broadly colonizers and colonized) probably focused on or emphasized the aspects of these unicorn stories that meant the most to them, such as the European emphasis on finding evidence in a time of nascent natural history. It is not clear that colonial Europeans ever understood that the San one-horned antelope was actually a rain animal.

IE: If the South African unicorn is a manifestation of the rain - a sacred rain-animal, does that take away from its reality as an animal, or is it still possible a unicorn-like animal existed in that area?

Again, there is no evidence that the unicorn was ever a real, biological animal. Non-real animals are an important feature of San rock art and typically depict beings in the spirit world, not the realm of everyday living. What is more, San (Bushman) beliefs about rain-animals and horns are more widespread than the area in which the paintings of one-horned rain-animals occur.

IE: Are there other legends or mythical concepts that have different meanings and interpretations across cultures, like the unicorns? 

Without further in-depth research, it is difficult to know whether two similar legends or mythical concepts have a genuine, culturally-derived connection or just a meaningless, superficial resemblance. I do not know of another example that matches the kind of conflation seen in South Africa between European and indigenous beliefs about one-horned creatures.

Check out the full paper “Revisiting the South African Unicorn: Rock Art, Natural History and Colonial Misunderstandings of Indigenous Realities” in Cambridge Archaeological Journal.

Study abstract

European ideas about unicorns spread across the world in the colonial era. In South Africa, hunts for that creature, and indigenous rock paintings of it, were commonplace. The aim was proof from ‘terra incognita’, often with the possibility of claiming a reward. There has, however, been little consideration of the independent, local creature onto which the unicorn was transposed. During cross-cultural engagements, foreign beliefs in the mythical unicorn and a desire for evidence of its natural history intermixed to an extraordinary degree with local beliefs in a one-horned animal. For over two centuries, colonists and researchers alike failed to realize that the local creature, by chance, resembled the European unicorn. A new synthesis of southern African ethnography, history and the writings of early travelers, missionaries, and colonial politicians provides unambiguous evidence that one-horned creatures obtained in local beliefs before the arrival of colonists. Moreover, it shows that these creatures are depicted in South African rock art, and that they are a manifestation of San (Bushman) rain-animals. By ignoring relevant beliefs and images, previous scholars have failed to acknowledge that the South African unicorn was, apart from its four legs and single horn, a creature wholly different from the European one.

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