Dr David Witelson
Thu, 02/02/2023 - 19:30 to 20:30
The Auditorium, Roedean School, 35 Princess of Wales Terrace, Parktown, Johannesburg
Date: Thursday, 02 February 2023 Time: 19:30
Venue: The Auditorium, Roedean School,
35 Princess of Wales Terrace, Parktown, Johannesburg
Charge: Non-members: R50, members: free

In 1801, the early traveller John Barrow published in his Travels a controversial ‘facsimile’ of what he claimed was a rock painting of a unicorn. Few, if any, were convinced that it was of a genuine, one-horned creature, not least because the published image
resembles the style of European engravings rather than San rock art. For over two hundred years, the ‘copy’ in his book has been regarded critically and sceptically. Understandably, the same is generally true for the suggestion that the unicorn ever existed in South Africa. Indeed, considerations of South Africa’s unicorn lore invariably conclude that the unicorns sought during the colonial era were simply rhinoceroses or gemsbok, or that such a creature was simply a figment of the imagination. How, indeed, could it be otherwise? But there is more to this fascinating story, and it begs the question of whether Barrow actually did find an image of a ‘unicorn’. New research around Dordrecht and Rossouw in the Eastern Cape highlights that rock paintings of unambiguously one-horned antelope do exist, and that there are many of them. Such paintings send us on to other significant and previously overlooked ethnographical and ethnohistorical documents. Together, they show the extraordinary degree to which the European unicorn resembled, at least in appearance, a one-horned, antelope-like form of a San rain-animal.

Dr David Witelson is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of the Witwatersrand’s Rock Art Research Institute (RARI) and is the organiser of RARI’s academic seminar series. Earlier in 2022 he completed his doctoral thesis under the supervision of Professors David Pearce and David Lewis-Williams. His thesis develops and applies performance theory to rock paintings in and around the Stormberg to better understand the making, viewing and significance of rock paintings. He has published articles on different aspects of South African archaeology. His 2019 monograph A painted ridge: Rock art and performance in the Maclear District, Eastern Cape Province, South Africa (Oxford: Archaeopress) is freely available online. Click here to access it.