University of Cambridge > Talks.cam > Centre of African Studies Michaelmas Seminars > Henri Breuil and the Imagination of Prehistory in Southern Africa

Henri Breuil and the Imagination of Prehistory in Southern Africa

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The Abbé Henri Breuil, French prehistorian and internationally renowned expert on rock art, made several extended visits to South Africa between 1929 and 1951. He was a foundational figure in the study of South African prehistory. This paper argues, firstly, that Breuil’s knowledge of European rock art accorded him unrivalled authority in South Africa and helped to promote the country’s significance as a rich repository of rock art. Secondly, it argues that Breuil’s stress on the romance and mysteries of the deep past offered plenty of scope for speculative race-based theories concerning civilisational origins. Thirdly, it suggests that Breuil’s complex patronage networks and status as a leading European professor allowed him to bridge divides between government and academics as well as professional and amateur archaeologists. Breuil had a keen understanding of how to deliver a message that was congenial to his white Anglophone South African hosts, while not offending Afrikaner nationalists. His view that human evolution was compatible with religious faith allowed him to propose a deep past in South Africa that did not collide with fundamentalist Christian-nationalism and which served to flatter white sensibilities about their continuing place in Africa.

This talk is part of the Centre of African Studies Michaelmas Seminars series.

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