the fascinating story behind one-horned creatures in rock artwork

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One-horned creatures are present in myths all over the world. Though unicorns in several cultures have little to do with each other, they’ve a number of associations in European thought.

For instance, the Roman pure historian Pliny the Elder wrote about unicorns within the first century AD. The unicorn options in each medieval Christian and Celtic beliefs, and is Scotland’s nationwide animal. The unicorn’s prominence in European tradition unfold throughout the globe with colonisation.

In southern Africa, colonial European concepts encountered older indigenous beliefs about one-horned creatures. I’ve highlighted this in a latest analysis article about among the area’s rock artwork.

Unicorns in Africa?

Within the age of pure science, unicorns had been regularly dismissed as legendary moderately than organic creatures. However some thought that actual animals with single horns may but exist within the “unexplored wilds” of Africa.

A well-known seek for such proof was carried out by the English traveller, author and politician Sir John Barrow (1764-1848). He’d heard rumours about “unicorns” from the colonists and native folks he encountered on his southern African travels.

A kind of rumours was that unicorns had been depicted within the rock work made by the indigenous San (Bushman) inhabitants of the area. Barrow searched unsuccessfully for them. Then, in mountains in what’s now the Jap Cape province, he discovered and copied a picture of a unicorn (Determine 1).

A black and white drawing of the head and neck of a horse-like creature with a mane and one long pointed horn.

Determine 1. Barrow’s unicorn.
After the picture revealed by Barrow

However many had been sceptical of his claims. His revealed copy resembles a European engraving moderately than a San rock portray. Extra typically, critics have argued that rock work of unicorns had been most likely impressed by side-on views of gemsbok or South African oryxes – antelope with lengthy, straight horns – or by rhinos (which could have one horn in India, however have two in southern Africa).

My analysis concludes that these criticisms don’t take into consideration a number of components which have since come to gentle. My paper offers additional assist for the claims that some San rock work do certainly depict one-horned creatures.

A number of rock artwork depictions

Early documented rock work of one-horned creatures are recognized from nineteenth and twentieth century copies by British geologist George Stow and South African trainer M. Helen Tongue.

I draw consideration to extra examples of rock work of one-horned creatures (Figures 2 and three).

Rock art painting showing buck and fish.

Determine 2. A pair of noticed one-horned animals surrounded by fish.
David M. Witelson

Collectively, these present that rock work of one-horned creatures can’t be dismissed as naturalistic profile views of two-horned creatures, one horn protecting the opposite.


The second approach by which my analysis engages with early criticisms is to attract consideration to beforehand missed indigenous beliefs regarding one-horned beings.

The proof means that the “unicorns” in indigenous legendary beliefs and rock artwork are literally animal-like types of rain, often called rain-animals.

Tongue’s colleague and co-worker, Dorothea Bleek, in contrast Stow’s and Tongue’s copies and recommended in 1909 that rock work of one-horned antelope had been most likely sorts of rain-animals, which she knew from |Xam San (Bushman) myths.

Rain-animals function prominently in San ritual, delusion and artwork. They take many varieties, starting from four-legged creatures to serpents. They had been ritually captured and slaughtered by San rainmakers to trigger rain to fall in particular locations. Many |Xam myths inform of the harmful male rain, typically personified because the “Rain”, who turned pubescent ladies and their households into frogs when the women didn’t accurately observe their initiation taboos.

A black and white drawing of a buck with one horn, behind it three other buck heads emerge.

Determine 3. Digital drawing of unique rock portray close to the city of Dordrecht.
David M. Witelson

Amongst different particulars, my paper highlights an interesting and beforehand missed reference to a one-horned water creature. In one of many variants of a story instructed by |Han≠kass’o or Klein Jantje – a |Xam man who was an skilled storyteller – a “water youngster” or juvenile rain-animal is claimed to have a single horn. The story was written down in phonetic script (to report the sounds of the San langauge) by Lucy Lloyd (Bleek’s aunt) and translated into English.

The lady in |Han≠kass’o’s story breaks the principles of her ritual puberty seclusion by going to a pond and catching (like fish) the youngsters of the rain, which she cooks and eats. After a couple of occasions she struggles to catch one other one: not like the others, this final creature is “a grown-up water”.

We all know what made it recognisably grown-up: not like the others, it had a single horn that poked out of the water. We have now, subsequently, the precise |Xam San phrases (which translate as “horned rain-child”) used to explain this type of rain-animal, which we discover within the rock work in and across the Jap Cape.

An intersection of beliefs

Within the colonial interval, indigenous folks had been uncovered to European photos of unicorns on crests, badges and buttons and thru tales. In one of many recorded situations, indigenous folks on the Cape noticed the British royal coat of arms and commented on the unicorn in it. They recognised it as their “god”, however this description, translated into English from an unknown indigenous idiom, most likely refers back to the creature’s legendary nature moderately than a real god-like standing.

Buck with horns that point forward depicted in a rock painting with blue bodies and white spots.

Determine 4. Rain-animals with horns that time up or curve ahead at a website close to Indwe.
David M. Witelson

Overseas unicorn photos could have regularly influenced native ones. Some rock work of one-horned creatures – dated by related human figures in European costume to the colonial interval – present horns pointing upward or ahead (Determine 4) just like the European unicorn, moderately than backwards like antelopes, such because the eland (Determine 5), on which many rock work of one-horned rain-animals are modelled.

A buck mendacity within the grass, its horns pointed up[wards and back.

Figure 5. The horns of the common eland.
Pxfuel, CC BY-SA

One-horned animals depicted in rock art are not mere rhinos nor antelope, nor are they the creatures of European myth.

Indigenous beliefs help us to explain that the uncanny resemblance between European unicorns and South African “unicorns” was pure chance. The mixing of foreign beliefs with local ones in colonial South Africa has hidden the independent, indigenous creature.


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