The Elasmotherium is an extinct species of large hairy rhinoceros with one long horn.
Various theories of Elasmothere morphology, nutrition and habits have been the cause of wide variation in reconstruction. Some show the beast trotting like a horse with a horn; others hunched over with head to the ground, like a bison, and still others immersed in swamps like a hippopotamus. The use of the horn and whether or not there was one, and how large, have been popular topics. The statistical correlations of modern paleontology have taken much of the speculation out of the subject, although some details remain undetermined.
If all grazers are hypsodont, not all hypsodonts are grazers. The supposed correlation between grass-eating and hypsodonty proved difficult to support in a number of instances. Koenigswald, for example, pointed out that hypsodonty had occurred among the Gondwanatheria of the Mesozoic, a group of mammals so primitive that he describes their cheek teeth as "molariform", as they are neither clearly molars nor premolars.
The Chinese k'i-lin, referring to some sort of beast, was loaned in various forms into the Turkic and Mongolic languages and lore. The writers of works in those languages have not known how to depict these strange beasts. A common theme is that they have a single horn, are dark and are huge.
For example, a book of divination in the Old Turkic language uses kälän käyik, "tawny beast", (the kilin is altered to kälän by vowel harmony). The Han I Araha Manju Gisun I Buleku Bithe, "Mirror of the Manchu Language", dating from the 18th century, defines the kilin as
- "... a quadruped with the body of a deer, the tail of a cow, the head of a sheep, the limbs of a horse, the hooves of a cow, and a big horn. His body is of five colors, his height a dozen feet. Of a gentle nature, he does not crush the worms or break the plants."
The Chinese had other unicorns, such as the Xiezhi, but the latter was less like a real animal and more a symbolic figure. It had the ability to discriminate right from wrong and therefore a representation of it was placed in the courtrooms of the Han Dynasty and, in the 3rd and 4th centuries, on the caps of judges. It looks like a seated or standing lion with a horn rising from the top of the head. In contrast to this mythical beast, the k'i-lin is presented as an animal actually caught by hunting parties of the past.
The Shiji ("Historical Records") of Sima Qian in the 2nd century mentions the capture of a "deer-like" animal with one horn in 122 BC. The Chunqin, an encyclopedia of the 3rd century BC, states that a unicorn was captured in 481 BC, but without any description. Chinese representations of unicorns vary quite a lot, but an engraving on a bronze vessel of the Warring States Period, shows an animal very like the cave paintings supposed to be of Elasmotherium: head down for grazing, horn protruding horizontally from the forehead, neck and shoulders humped.
From medieval northern Russia, probably Veliky Novgorod, a collection of ballads has survived, combined into a spiritual theme deriving ultimately from Zoroastrianism, but with Christian overtones, called the Stikh o Golubinoi knige, or in another version the Golubinaia kniga, "The Book of the Dove". The "dove", or golub of the Christian work is probably an alteration of glub, "depth", so that the reconstructed name, *Glubinnaia kniga, is on the same theme as the Zend Avesta and similar works in Iran, the struggle between cosmic good and evil.
Science writer and cryptozoologist Willy Ley theorised that these legends have simply been passed down since a hunting association with the beast in prehistoric times, and that the animals did not actually survive into recorded history. One argument for survival is the testimony by the medieval traveller, Ibn Fadlan.
- "Near this river (the Volga) is a vast wilderness wherein they say is an animal that is less than a camel and more like a bull in size. Its head is like the head of a camel, and its tail is like the tail of a bull, while its body is like the body of a mule, and its hooves are like the cloven hooves of a bull. In the center of its head, it has a thick round horn, which as it rises from the head of the animal gets to be thinner until it becomes like the point of a lance. The length of some of these horns is from three to five cubits, and there are those that may attain to a greater or lesser length. The animal grazes on the leaves of trees, which are quite green. When it sees a horseman, it makes straight for him, and if he happens to have under him a fast horse, he is rendered safe from it with some effort. If it overtakes him, it removes him from the back of his horse with its horn, hurls him into the air, and then catches him with its horn. It continues in this manner until it kills him. It does not bother the horse in any form or manner. They seek out this animal in the forests in order to kill it. They do that by climbing the tall trees among which it is found, and with this object in mind, they assemble a number of archers with poisoned arrows. When it stands in their midst, they shoot at it until it is severely wounded and killed by them. I saw in the king's house three large bowls which looked like [they were made of] the onyx of Yemen. The king informed me that it was made from the base of the horn of the animal. Some of the people of the country told me that it was a rhinoceros."
In the northeast of the Chinese mountain ranges, in 1866 Vasily Radlov reported a legend among the Yakuts of Siberia of a "huge black bull" killed by spear, who had "a single horn" so large it required a sledge for transportation. In 1878 A. F. Brandt suggested the beast was an Elasmotherium.