The exterior striations on rhinoceros horn consist of circular rings in low relief which mark stages in the growth of the horn, similar to the rings on a tree. It is the alternately tighter and looser adhesion of the fibres which gives each horn its characteristic transverse banding (Fortelius, 1983, 127). Very faint striations also sometimes appear in the interior hollows of polished rhino horn cups as they age and dry out, and these natural features must have been well known amongst the Arabs, because they, as chief among the exporters of rhino horn to China, had actually held the horns in their hands and examined them. One might then assume that the knowledge of these natural markings simply filtered westward via the Arab traders on the southern sea routes, eventually giving birth to later European lore about the “striations” or “rings” on the unicorn’s horn. However this assumption still does not explain the European references to the “spiral twistings” on the unicorn’s horn.

By far the strangest thing in the history of opinion about the alicorn’s appearance is the age and persistence of the belief in the natural twistings or ‘striae.’ These are clearly delineated in every picture of the unicorn that I have seen in mediaeval manuscripts, some of which were drawn in the twelfth century. . . (yet) there seems to be no ancient authority for them whatsoever, and learned writers do not mention them until after the close of the Middle Ages…. But Arabian writers had accepted them somewhat earlier…. (Shepard, [1930] 1982, 103)

There is no doubt that in the Renaissance period in Europe, the natural spiral twistings of the narwhal’s tusk were considered absolute proof that it was a genuine unicorn’s horn with powerful anti-poisonous properties. But if there is no ancient Western authority for these ideas, then where and when did they begin, and why was it that Arabian writers had accepted them somewhat earlier?

To discover the source of this belief in the “spiral twistings,” we must look to the far distant north, to the circumpolar regions of the world, and examine an extraordinary animal called the narwhal (Monodan monoceros) (fig. 80).

Figure 80. A group of narwhals in the Canadian arctic.

The narwhal is a sea mammal, like all other whales. However, it inhabits the icy circumpolar seas and is rarely seen south of 65 degrees north latitude. Today, most of the world’s narwhals live in Davis Strait and Baffin Bay, between Greenland and Baffin Island, and in adjacent straits, sounds and bays of the Canadian islands of the High Arctic (map12).

Map 12. Range of world’s main Narwhal Population

Its (the narwhal’s) peculiar feature is the absence of all teeth except for two in the upper jaw arranged horizontally side by side. In the male, usually the left tooth, and occasionally both teeth, are strongly developed into spirally twisted straight tusks passing through the upper lip and projecting like horns at the front. They often reach a length of half, and even more, that of the entire animal which in the state of maturity may attain to fifteen feet. (Laufer, 1913, 330 n.1)

Recent research indicates that the males use these long tusks in ritual “jousts” to establish dominance (fig. 81) (Bruemmer, 1991, 25-26).

Figure 81. A narwhal “joust.”

These tusks, with their distinctive spirals, have been called “horns” since ancient times all over the northern hemisphere (fig. 82).

Figure 82. A man holding a narwhal tusk

Because of this, narwhals came to be known as the “unicorns
of the sea.” But of course, narwhal “horn” is no more true horn than rhinoceros “horn.”

Although modern studies of these arctic ice whales only began in the 1970s, the peoples of the circumpolar seas must have hunted them for their flesh and tusks since time immemorial. Unfortunately there is a scarcity of written records and/or archaeological evidence for the early peoples who settled on the northern shores of North America, Europe and Asia, but their work in the carving of marine ivory forms an essential feature of their material culture, and “the wide distribution of this industry over vast and scattered tracts of circumpolar land is amenable to the belief that it is very ancient” (Laufer, 1913, 343-44).

The earliest known written reference to maritime ivory is found in a book written by Gaius Julius Solinus, who lived in the first half of the third century C.E., where “he has a report on sword-hilts made by the inhabitants of ancient Ireland from the teeth of a marine animal” (ibid., 333-34).13 In 1838, K. E. v. Baer identified this material as narwhal tusk, based on the fact that “the walrus does not occur in the British Seas, whereas the narwhals sometimes descend far southward” (ibid., 334), but early writers usually made no distinction between the teeth of the narwhal and the walrus. Nevertheless, it is apparent that marine ivory from the arctic seas had reached Ireland by the third century of the Common Era.

The next dated reference which refers to the ancient trade in maritime ivory appears in the Jiu Tang Shu (Old Tang History), where it states that among the gifts offered in 773 C.E. by the Kingdom of Sinra, an independent state in south Korea, to the Tang Dynasty court, were gold, silver, bezoar and fish-teeth (ibid., 340). It is likely that these “fish-teeth” were the ivory tusks of walrus and narwhal from the arctic waters of the Bering Strait and the Chukchi Sea (map 12). However, another translation of this passage suggests that what the Koreans offered was silk with a “fish-teeth” pattern (ibid.). Nevertheless, in either case, one can assume some kind of knowledge of marine ivory.

The Koreans must have received these fish-teeth through trade with other groups of people further to the north in ancient Manchuria, where distant arctic products would have made their way down the valley of the Heilong Jiang (Black Dragon River) and thence into the sub-basin of the Songhua Jiang. The study of the tribes of ancient Manchuria is complicated for many reasons, including their lack of written records, the fluidity of their tribal boundaries, and their propensity for changing their names. However, of the many tribes in this area, there were two that were especially well-situated to serve as middlemen in the trade in marine ivory down the northeast coast of Asia. These were the Su Shen and the Mo-ho, both of whom inhabited the valley of the Songhua Jiang in what are now the northeastern Chinese provinces of Heilongjiang, Jilin and Liaoning (map 13).

Map 13. Map of northeast Asia showing the major river systems

Little is known about the Su Shen, (who were also known as the Yi-Lou,) for they left no written records of their own. However, in Chinese texts they are described as an ancient Stone Age people living in semi-subterranean dwellings (Ikeuchi, 1930). According to these ancient Chinese sources the Su Shen used arrows of hu wood, with blue/green stone arrowheads called shinu which, according to the Hou Han Shu, “were all poisoned, causing instant death to those struck” (Parker, 1890, 174).

A mere supposition is that they belong to the Tungusian stock of peoples; yet this remains to be ascertained. They may as well have been related to one of the numerous groups of tribes occupying ancient Korea, or, which is still more likely, to the so-called Paleo-Asiatic tribes of the North-Pacific region; but the whole ancient ethnology of north-eastern Asia remains as yet to be investigated. (Laufer, 1914, 262)

The Su Shen also appear in the Wei Zhi (History of the Wei during the Three Kingdoms Period) where it is recorded that in 262 C.E., that the country of Su Shen sent a tribute of, among other things, a mixed lot of twenty armours of leather, bone and iron. This armour of leather and bone was probably a type of bone plate armour consisting of overlapping plates of walrus or narwhal ivory plaited together with sinews, similar to the type used by the indigenous peoples of Alaska (fig. 83).

Figure 83. Inuit armour made of marine ivory plates.
U.S. National Museum, Washington (Cat. No.153491)

Thus the material culture of the Su Shen suggests contacts with the native peoples of North America, and indicates that they “must have either ranged among the representative of North-Pacific culture, or have been strongly influenced by it” (Laufer, 1914, 264). In fact, as far back as the Mesolithic there were contacts between the peoples of Asia and North America, most probably by way of the Aleutian Islands (Okladnikov, 1990, 63). The Su Shen “were handy boatmen, and fond of freebooting raids, so that neighbouring states, while repelling their attacks, were never able to bring them under control” (Parker, 1890, 174). They lived by hunting, trading and raiding, and were virtually the “Vikings of the East” (Laufer, 1914, 262), and thus they were highly likely to have been involved in the early northeast Asian trade in narwhal horn.

The second group of people who were well-positioned to take advantage of this early trade in maritime ivory were the Mo-ho. In the Tang Hui Yao (Aspects of Tang History,) a tenth-century work compiled by Wang Pu relating to state matters of the Tang Dynasty, it says “In the country of the Mo-ho there are great numbers of sable skins, guduxi [marine ivory], white hares and white falcons.” The Mo-ho were a Tungusic tribe whose territory was also centred in the Songhua Jiang valley, which is a very long way from the arctic hunting grounds of the Chukchi Sea. However, their domain also bordered the Sea of Japan, stretching north from the Korean peninsula to the mouth of the Heilong Jiang. Hence they were also in a good position to act as middlemen in the trade of narwhal and walrus tusks from the north to the south via the coastal routes and inland waterways of ancient Manchuria. Therefore, as far as is known at present, it was most likely through trade with the Su Shen and/or the Mo-ho, that marine ivory from the Bering Strait and the Chukchi Sea entered Korea, and thence China and Japan during the Tang Dynasty, where it was known as “fish-teeth” and used both for medicine and for carving.

In Europe, as we have seen, the earliest record of “fish-teeth” dates to the third century C.E. However, after that isolated reference, nothing is heard again on the subject until the second half of the ninth century, when the Norseman Ohthere from Helgeland in Norway “between 870 and 880 sailed around the North Cape to Biarmia [the modern word Perm] and reported on this enterprise to King Alfred the Great of England. The main purpose of his voyage was to obtain ‘horsewhales’ [horshvael] which have in their teeth bones of great price and excellencie” (Laufer, 1913, 337). This Anglo-Saxon reference indicates that by the ninth century, maritime ivory from the arctic seas had begun to form an important article of trade in Europe.

The people who facilitated this trade were the Scandinavian merchant-seamen known as the Varangians (Vikings) whose shallow draft longboats enabled them to navigate the numerous river systems of Europe with relative ease. By this means they moved eastward into Russia in the ninth century, bringing with them articles of trade, including marine ivory from the arctic seas. Part of the reason for this eastern exploration was the Arab seizure of both the Southern Mediterranean and Spain, which “broke, or at least undermined, for some time the commercial intercourse between western Europe and the Orient. Roundabout routes had to be established, and it was in search of such routes that the Varangians began their exploration of the Russian riverways.” (Vernadsky, 1959, 206). Gradually the Vikings took control of the Baltic approaches to the upper Volga, and eventually succeeded in opening a way from the Baltic to the Black Sea and the Caspian region.

By the closing decades of the ninth century the Swedes and the Rus were of considerable importance in Russian affairs. Over on the Volga they were active in trade and busily in contact with the khagnates of the Bulghars and Khazars; they were well known to the Muslims south of the Caspian, and having crossed that sea by boat from Itil [the capital of the Khazars] would continue by camel train over the desert to Baghdad. Here and on the Volga bend they encountered merchants and trade goods from as far east as China, so that Viking trade reached out eastwards to the confines of the known or rumoured world. (Jones, 1984, 253; emphasis added)

A group of people well situated to profit from this mediaeval Western trade in maritime ivory down the rivers of Russia were the Volga Bulghars. They are first mentioned in the account of al-Mukaddasi (937 C.E.) who gives a long list of their exports including: “furs of many different kinds, horse and goat skins, shoes, kalansuwas [?], arrows, swords, armour, sheep, cattle, falcons, isinglass, fish-teeth, birch wood, walnut, wax, honey and Slavonic slaves”
(Encyclopaedia of Islam, 1960, 1, 1306; emphasis added). The Bulghars were a tribe of Central Asian Turkic origin who apparently arrived at the confluence of the Volga and Kama Rivers, in the southwestern steppes of Russia, sometime during the seventh century, although the chronology of the arrival of the Turkic peoples in the Volga Kama region is still the subject of considerable controversy (Golden, 1990, 234-37). There, they subjugated the aboriginal Finnish population and eventually settled down and founded a khagnate and a town both known as Bulghar, which flourished from the latter part of the tenth century to the thirteenth century (Encyclopaedia of Islam, 1960, 1, 1305).

The main source of the country’s wealth … was international trade. The river Volga is one of the most ancient trade-routes in the world and the favourable site of the town of Bulghar at the cross-roads of east-west and north-south trade was fully exploited. The Bulghars themselves traded mainly in the north and in a lesser degree also in Central Asia, but the importance of Bulghar was due in the first place to its function as a meeting-place of foreign merchants, Russians, Khazars and Muslims. (ibid., 1306)

Thus, by the ninth century it is evident that walrus and narwhal tusks “formed an important article of trade in the northeast of Europe, that they were known as fish-teeth, and that they were traded to the Turks, and probably reached also inner Asia during the middle ages” (Laufer, 1913, 338). It is also apparent that in commercial transactions, little distinction was made between the ivory of these two species.

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