Guide to Patagonia's Monsters & Mysterious beings

I have written a book on this intriguing subject which has just been published.
In this blog I will post excerpts and other interesting texts on this fascinating subject.

Austin Whittall

Friday, November 27, 2009

The Patagonian Unicorns - Part 1



Camahueto a Patagonian unicorn, by Austin Whittall. Copyright © 2008 by Austin Whittall

«Now I will believe / That there are unicorns (…) »
William Shakespeare - The Tempest

English travel writer Bruce Chatwin had his fictional Father Palacios assert that there had been unicorns in Patagonia and that they had been hunted to death by the natives eight thousand years ago. He also added, mixing fact and fiction that there was proof of this at Lake Posadas, where “you will find two paintings of unicorns. One holds it horn erect […] the other is about to impale a hunter”.[1]

Chatwin was actually expressing the ideas of the heterodox Salesian priest Manuel Jesús Molina (we mentioned him in our post on Yosi), who was sure that the Paleo-Indians had hunted unicorns for several thousand years and painted them in their rock-art.

He mentions one painting that shows some men apparently hunting a unicorn, which he dated to 9,000 years BP at Arroyo Lechuza, a stream that flows into Santa Cruz River.[2]

He also documented another painting with a “Unicornium patagonicum at Cerro del indio, lago Posadas”, which is precisely the one mentioned by Chatwin. Below is a photograph of this unicorn:

unicorn Lake Posadas

Unicornio. Copyright © 2008 by Alejandro Aguado. From: [3]

These paintings located in the basin of lakes Posadas and Pueyrredón, where the arid steppe meets the Andes (47°35’ S, 71°43’ W), have been dated to some 3,850 years ago.

The unicorn according to a Patagonian travelogue is “rather faded” and in our opinion it either represents a stocky creature with a very long horn or a slender necked guanaco decapitated by weathering. The interpretation lies in the eyes of the beholder. I am skeptical.

Close by is the Cueva de las manos (Cave of Hands - 47°09’ S, 70°39’ W). A World Heritage Site of the UNESCO. It got its name from the hundreds of negative impressions of hands painted on the walls of the Rio Pinturas canyon. These red, white and black imprints date back between 9,000 and 13,500 years and are interspersed with renderings of guanaco and men hunting them, as well as later abstract designs and, monster-like matuastos.

The place is impressive. I visited it in February 2007 and took the photograph which I reproduce below. The painting seems to depict a fat guanaco-like animal with a sharp pointed horn on its head (perhaps it is a one-horned Huemul? We will get back to this in the second part of this post).

Unicorn Cueva de las manos

Unicorn at Cueva de las Manos. Copyright © 2007 by Austin Whittall

Unicorns existed

Molina described his “unicornium” as a toxodontid that had a:

long curved frontal horn, prominent thorax and the character and behavior of the rhinoceros. In Indian paintings they can be seen running to attack […] they had an amphibian life with a body adapted to an aquatic and marshy environment. The head carried a small nasal horn.[4]

However strange it may seem, Molina was right. Patagonia was once home to “one-horned” beasts belonging to the Toxodontidae family (named after its most recent member the toxodon).

Toxodon was a large hippo-like South American mammal that belonged to the now totally extinct order Notoungulata, hoofed mammals endemic to the American continent. They disappeared quite recently, some 10,000 years BP, with all the other megafauna; they co-existed with humans and are pictured on rock art in Brazil.

Among these Toxodontidae, was the paratrigodon, unearthed in the 1930s close to northern Patagonia and its relative, the trigodon; both of which had a strong frontal horn: they were unicorns! Below is a reproduction of the one-horned trigodon:


Trigodon. Copyright by The Natural History Museum, London © 2008. Michael Long. From: [6]

There were two other “unicorn” Toxodontidae; one was the small 1,5 m long (5 ft.) Adinotherium ovinum which looked like tiny rhino, and had a small dermal horn on its forehead.[7]

The other was the larger nesodon (Nesodontinae cornutus) that also had a dermal horn and whose habitat in Patagonia reached well beyond 47°S.

However, the time frame would not have allowed modern men to see either of them because they became extinct between 2 and 15 Ma. years ago. If these creatures are the ones that were painted by Paleo-Indians, this means that some of these “unicorn” Toxodontidae must have managed to survive at least until men hunted and painted them; not earlier than some 35.000 years ago.

On Monday we will continue with the second post on Patagonian unicorns.


[1] Chatwin, B., (2006). In Patagonia. B. Aires: Gráfica MPS. pp. 103.
[2] Molina, M., (1976). Op. Cit. pp. 54 and 193.
[3] Aguado Alejandro, (2009), “unicornio.100.jpg”.Bitácoras Fotográficas de Otras Patagonias. “Variados”, 13.03.2009
[5] Molina, M., (1976). Op. Cit. pp. 22.
[6] The Natural History Museum, London. Trigodon
[7] Prothero, D., et al., (2002). Horns, Tusks, and Flippers: The Evolution of Hoofed Mammals. Baltimore: JHU Press. pp. 15.

Copyright 2009 by Austin Whittall ©

Patagonian Monsters

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