Besides being an awesome name for a band, paleolithic Siberian unicorn is an apt description of an animal otherwise known as Elasmotherium.
Elasmotherium was a prehistoric relative of the rhinoceros that ranged across central Asia and eastern Europe. It stood over 2 meters tall at the shoulder and its body was as long as 4.5 meters. Its distinguishing feature was an enormous horn on its face. The exact size and shape of the horn have never been determined, since no horn remains have been found, but the bony basis for the horn can be clearly seen on preserved skulls.
Elasmotherium was long thought to have gone extinct over 350,000 years ago, but recent work on a skull found in Kazakhstan has shown that the animal survived until at least 29,000 years ago. That puts living Elasmotheria in the middle of the upper (more recent) paleolithic (40,000-10,000 years ago). Humans certainly lived alongside them and may have depicted them in cave art.
Some have speculated that Elasmotheria survived even longer and may have been the inspiration for fantastical animals including unicorns, as described by eastern European legends, and the Chinese qilin. It’s impossible to verify such ideas, but they’re fun to think about.
Image: Elasmotherium via Wikimedia (c. 1920; painting; by Heinrich Harder)
Hey, look! We found a thing on the internet! We thought it was cool, and wanted to share it with you.
From the city of Rome to the Arctic circle is a distance of about 2,750 km. At its greatest extent, the northernmost tip of the Roman empire was more than 1,000 km from the Arctic. Even across such a distance, however, there were connections. A couple of little pieces of evidence show us how knowledge of Rome could reach the far north, and how knowledge of the far north could reach Rome.
In Føre, Nordland, on an island in far northern Norway, is an ancient burial site. Over several centuries in the late iron age around 10 mound burials were raised of earth and stone. (The number is uncertain because some of the mounds have been destroyed by erosion and farming.) Not all have been excavated, but those that have have yielded the evidence of extraordinary wealth by local standards, including a Roman drinking glass buried in the only female grave so far known at the site. (The glass pictured is of a similar type, but not from the same site.)
It is very unlikely that Føre had any direct connection to the Roman world. Rather it was at the northern extreme of a network of trade and alliances that spanned Scandinavia and the Baltic Sea region which used Roman imports as high-status trade goods and diplomatic gifts. The people of Føre may have had very little idea of what the Roman empire was, but they had some access to Roman goods and valued them as precious objects.
What if there was a fantasy world where moose were tamed and selectively bred for cavalry? I spent some time pondering it after a couple of things found online collided in my head.
First, there’s this animated gif of a moose rushing through a deep snow-filled field:
Their size, speed, and ability to gallop through deep snowbanks make moose fearsome and pretty near unstoppable. Imagine a line of ginormous moose thundering at full tilt towards you across a field – that’s a truly frightening thought! Also bogs don’t slow them down by much, I believe, which might conceivably tip the scales in the right kind of a campaign.
Then, I saw this photo of an albino moose:
Natural snow camouflage. Hmmm.
It’s not that far-fetched an idea, apparently. The Soviet Union attempted to build a moose cavalry in the first half of the 20th century, but they were unsuccessful. In our world, the solitary habits of moose seem to be standing in the way of domestication. If we’re talking about a fantasy world, however, I don’t see why not.
Images: Rushing moose gif via Crazy Hyena. White moose by Antti Terävä via Yle
The Visual Inspiration occasional feature pulls the unusual from our world to inspire design, story-telling, and worldbuilding. If stuff like this already exists, what else could we imagine?
From the grand howdah-backed elephant to the plodding pack pony, from the solitary stallion to the caravan of a thousand camels, animals are often a part of how our characters get around. In previous entries to the travel series we’ve considered small and large groups traveling on foot. This time we bring animals into the mix.
Animals can be useful for travel, but they also bring their own challenges with them. The first thing we need to consider is what kinds of animals are useful for long-distance travel. Then we’ll look at the three main ways of using animals for travel: riding, pack, and draft. Finally, a word on the care and feeding of transport animals. As usual in this series, we are looking at real-world history: no griffins or dragon-drawn chariots. Take the information here and adjust as necessary for whatever setting you happen to be writing.
Or: Some History behind Ostrich Riding, Part 6 of 7
Background: I ran into two historical images from California with ostriches used as transportation. That got me wondering about the history of ostrich riding. And that lead me down quite a rabbit hole.
I’ve divided my findings into separate posts (find them with the ostrich riding tag). Warning: serious early history and language nerdery ahead in Serious Academic Voice.
TL;DR – Tracing ostrich riding to a 3rd century BCE tomb find (a statue of Arsinoe II) from Egypt doesn’t hold up. The use of various ostrich products in human material culture dates back thousands of years. A few ancient depictions involve humans handling ostriches; however, extant sources don’t tell us whether ostriches were merely hunted or whether they were also tamed in the ancient world. The most promising source seems to be a description of a magnificent parade put together by Arsinoe II’s husband-brother Ptolemy II. This Grand Procession included eight chariots drawn by pairs of ostriches, and the ostriches may have been ridden by boys in costumes.
I had hoped to find a nice, neat selection of ancient texts putting the Greek word for ‘ostrich’ in context, but even a cursory look reveals that the history of the word strouthos is complex. At best, we can say that there are no immediate red flags either in the original Greek or modern English translations for Arsinoe II’s statue or Ptolemy II’s Grand Procession. The poem Berenice’s Lock was said to contain further evidence of ostriches as mounts in Ptolemaic Egypt after Arsinoe II’s death. Instead, what we seem to have is a case of poetic ambiguity translated with poetic license and taken uncritically as evidence.
Some centuries after Arsinoe II and Ptolemy II, ostrich riding may appear in the Roman Empire. Claims in some secondary sources turn out unverifiable, however. Researching primary sources helps but a little: on one hand, many of these texts either have problematic histories or their authorship or accuracy may be questionable; on the other, ostriches tend to appear in context of fighting in gladiatorial games, not being ridden or raced. Surviving visual art only confirms the appearance of ostriches in hunting and arena scenes the Roman territories, not riding or chariot-pulling. A description in the life of Emperor Firmus comes closest, but Historia Augusta, the source of his life, is considered unreliable.
Below is the long story.
Whether it’s carrying the One Ring to Mount Doom or sailing the Azure Sea, travel is an important part of a lot of fantasy stories and games. For those of us more accustomed to traveling by car, train, bus, and plane than by foot, horse, oxcart, or galleon, this poses a lot of practical problems. How far can your characters travel in a day? How long will it take them to get from point A to point B? And what do they need in order to make the journey successfully?
This is the introduction to a History for Writers series that looks at the evidence of history to help provide practical answers to your questions about travel in the pre-modern world. We’ll look at a few basic issues today. In future installments we’ll examine specific modes of travel, terrains, and problems.
Note that what we’re discussing here is based on real-world history, so it applies only to the extent that your world resembles historical conditions. If your characters travel by foot, horse, and sail, much of the information here will be directly applicable. If they have teleportation and magic carpets, adjust accordingly.
Here are a few basic issues that apply to just about any kind of travel in a pre-industrial world: