Henri Breuil

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Henri Prosper Edouard Breuil was born on 28 February 1877 at Mortain, Normandy in France. As a scholar, Breuil was interested in entomology and zoology but it was his devotion to Catholicism that encouraged him to enter the Issey-les-Moulineaux Seminary in 1895.

In 1929 the Prime Minister, General Hertzog invited Breuil to South Africa. Breuil sailed to South Africa visiting part of Bechuanaland (Botswana), Orange Free State, Basutoland (Lesotho), Transvaal, Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) and the Victoria Falls.

Breuil’s return visit to South Africa in October 1942 came at the request of Van Riet Lowe.

He occupied the post of associate visiting professor at the University of Witwatersrand and researcher with the Archaeology Survey, Department of Education. During his 32-month stay, Breuil visited the Orange Free State, mountains of Lesotho, Mozambique, Cape Town, Port Elizabeth and the valley of the Vaal. His research included the study of raised beaches, the succession of industries in river valleys and the reproductions of rock paintings.

Breuil was captivated by the rock art in southern Africa. On his next visit in 1947, Breuil toured southern Africa over a period of 2 years. He visited Zambia, Zimbabwe, the Belgian Congo, Angola and Namibia. But his focus was primarily on Brandberg and the White Lady. Breuil spent weeks in the harsh African sun sketching and tracing this rock painting.

Breuil’s research into this particular rock painting became a rather controversial aspect of his career. Breuil insisted that an ancient tribe of Europeans that once inhabited Africa painted the art. However the archaeological community finally threw out this interpretation in 1956 as a “highly romanticised” explanation. Breuil’s last visit to southern Africa came in 1951. The then frail 74-year-old found great difficulty in returning to his beloved White Lady shelter in the Brandberg. Sadly he was unable to climb the mountain to the shelter.

On 14 August 1961 Abbè Henri Breuil died at his home.

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