The Odd History of Germany’s “Unicorn” Fossil

The Magdeburg Unicorn, on display at the Natural History Museum Madgeburg (image courtesy Sven Sachs via Twitter)

Deep down inside, all of us have a place in our hearts for unicorns. This is not just a ’90s-kid phenomenon inspired by Lisa Frank Trapper Keepers; it has been a part of human nature for ages, from the turn of the 15th century to animated films of the 1980s that were definitely too traumatizing to show to children. But it seems that no one, truly no one, loved unicorns with quite the same dedication as the good people of 17th-century Germany, specifically the town of Magdeburg north of Leipzig, where a 350-year-old theoretical reconstruction of a unicorn fossil is having one of its perennial moments in the limelight.

The so-called “Magdeburg Unicorn” first appeared in 1663, with the discovery of the remains of a wooly rhinoceros — a prehistoric cold-climate megafauna that roamed throughout Asia and Europe as early as 500,000 years ago — unearthed at Seweckenberge, a German steppe known to contain ice age fossils. Since the wooly rhino was not yet described by science, Prussian naturalist Otto von Guericke (1602–1686) drew the most logical conclusion, based on the evidence: obviously a unicorn. Around 1668, von Geuricke allegedly created the bone assemblage that today stands on display at the Museum of Natural History Magdeburg.

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Framed dramatically as “one of the worst fossil reconstructions in history,” it is slightly unclear whether the assemblage was an earnest reflection of von Guericke’s hypothesis or a kind of pre-internet meme perpetuated by philosopher and scientist Gottfried Leibniz. Sources conflict on whether Geuricke made the model that Leibniz sketched or the assemblage was created from a sketch by the philosopher based on Guericke’s theory. It is also unclear how seriously any of the scientists were about it really being a unicorn.

“The horn, together with the head, several ribs, dorsal vertebrae, and bones were brought to the town’s serene abbess,” Leibniz wrote in his geology and natural history book Protogaea. Regardless of who has taken it seriously since then, the Magdeburg Unicorn enjoys a comet-like relationship with popular imagination, streaking across the collective consciousness to inspire awe at regular intervals. Most recently, Reddit has learned of this wonder of the natural history learning curve, and a post about it has received 77,000 up-votes in four days. There is also a fascinating explainer making the rounds on Twitter.

If the opportunity to see such a magnificent creature in person weren’t incentivizing enough, the official tourism board of Magdeburg is quick to mention that the city is also home to the ancient monastery Kloster Unserer Lieben Frauen, now home to the “the most important museum for modern art in Saxony-Anhalt,” so it sounds like this place has everything.


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