Il ont olifans ellez et unicornes aussi qui ne sont gaires grandes dun olifant et ont le poil autel come buffle et les piez come olifant et ont une corne ẽmi le fronc blanche mlt grosse et ne font nul mal de la corne mais de la langue. Car ces vnicornes ont la langue mlt espinouse de granz espines et longues. Et si ont la teste autele come de cengler. Et portent touz iours la teste enclin uers terre. Il demuerent uolentieres entour las et plantaīs. Cest une mlt laide beste a ueoir. Et nest pas tele come nos dirons. De ca quele serpent ou giron dune pucele et uierge.'They have elephants there and unicorns too, which are nearly as big as an elephant and have hair like a buffalo, and a horn in the middle of the forehead which is white and very thick, and they do nothing bad with the horn but rather with the tongue. These unicorns have a thorny tongue, with spines both large and long. And they have a head like a boar's, always inclined to the ground. They wallow in mud and bogs. They're really quite horrible to look at, and nothing like the unicorns we talk about, caught in the laps of maidens and virgins.'
|Reality. h/t Charles W. Hardin.|
The context for this story is Polo/Rustichello's description of Basma(n). Basman was certainly in Sumatra and is identifiable either with Samudra-Pasai in northern Sumatra, which in Arabic was called Basam (according to Henry Yule), or with Gunung (Mt.) Pasaman in what is now the province of Sumatera Barat (West Sumatra).
Polo says that the people of Basman had no religion and lived like animals (also: '...il ne tienent nule loy', 'they have no law'), which he says of several Sumatran groups. Pasai, though, was a city with laws and at the time probably had a large Muslim population, and it seems unlikely that Polo would ignore that and declare them all animalistic idolaters when he gives accurate information for Ferlec (Fallet, Fellet, etc), another largely-Muslim city in northern Sumatra. We have a historical account of Pasai from fourteenth-century Pasai itself, the Hikayat Raja-raja Pasai, which I've mentioned before, and 'lawless gentiles' doesn't sound like an accurate description of the city at all.
Let's be clear that nobody really lives without law in some sense, and calling people animals is the definition of dehumanisation. I'm not saying that the people of Pasai were better than villagers in West Sumatra in the thirteenth century in some objective sense, only that they don't fit the non-Abrahamic, non-urban lifestyle described by Polo.
On that basis, I suspect we're dealing with the people and thorn-tongued unicorns who apparently lived around Mount Pasaman in West Sumatra. Precisely why Polo visited this part of Sumatra I can't say, but he visited Barus, also in western Sumatra, so it's not far off his route.
More marvels next time...