Throughout the rocky history of science, there have been more than a fair share of blunders, embarrassments, and shameful screw ups. However, few come more hilarious than the valiant efforts of natural history in 17th-century Germany and its unwavering belief in the humble unicorn.
If you pay a visit to the Natural History Museum Magdeburg, you’ll undoubtedly notice a strange “unicorn” specimen. Of course, the skeleton was not actually a mythical beast. It was, in fact, a woolly rhinoceros, an extinct species that roamed throughout much of Eurasia until the end of the last Ice Age.
Sure, this spineless species might just look like a secondhand Lego model put together without an instruction manual, but these strange bones managed to fool some of the brightest brains of 17th-century Germany.
The bones were first found in a cave near the mountain town of Quedlinburg in 1663. The sensational discovery caught the attention of Otto von Geuricke, the Prussian scientist who invented the vacuum pump, who concluded that the incomplete skeleton was, indeed, a unicorn.
Reports of the skeleton later ended up as an illustration from a book by renowned German polymath Gottfried Leibniz, which was used as the instruction manual for this particular masterpiece. As explained in an article in the journal Nature, Leibniz was also quick to jump to the conclusion that the unusual bones were a chimera of many known creatures, just like the legendary unicorn.
“The horn, together with the head, several ribs, dorsal vertebrae, and bones were brought to the town's serene abbess,” he wrote in his geology and natural history book Protogaea.
“One is thus inclined to suspect that nature, using volcanoes as furnaces and mountains as alembics, has accomplished in her mighty works what we play at with our little examples in laboratories.”
Needless to say, this freak show oddity didn’t stand up to much scrutiny over the centuries. Nowadays, the unicorn is nothing more than a viral laughing stock. Back in spring last year, on April Fool’s day, the skeleton was even the subject of an Aprils fool’s prank by the State Office for the Preservation of Monuments and Archeology Saxony-Anhalt.
They claimed that scientists had carried out new DNA evidence on the bones and discovered that it was an extinct species known as Monoceros mendaciloquus, a rare Pleistocene hoofed animal whose last descendants died in the late Middle Ages.
Thankfully, very few German scientists fell for the joke.