David Lewis-Williams

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(1934-) Cognitive archaeologist and former Director of the Rock Art Research Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand.


Born James David Lewis-Williams in Cape Town, he studied at the University of Cape Town majoring in English and Geography; and graduated in 1955 with a BA. He became a teacher at Selborne College. During his tenure there, he developed an amateur interest in Archaeology and published his first academic paper on rock art (engravings) in 1962. In 1963, he moved to Kearsney College, where he taught English and obtained his B.A. Honours from the University of South Africa. While at Kearsney College he took field trips to see archaeological sites in the Drakensberg mountains and became familiar with the Drakensberg San rock art and started to ponder their meaning and significance. In an early 1972 journal paper he flirted with Structuralism and Semiotics as a means to decode their meaning, but a paper by Patricia Vinnicombe in the same year (suggesting a correlation between the Drakensberg rock art and San ethnographic work, hypothesising that the art depicted scenes from San mythology), turned his amateur fascination into a serious occupation. He began a M.A. in Social Anthropology at the University of Natal and was awarded a visiting fellowship to Clare Hall, Cambridge University in 1975 so that he could study the various San ethnographic sources/records in the United Kingdom. Soon thereafter, the M.A. was upgraded, without David’s knowledge, to a Ph.D. which he obtained in 1978. He went on to write rpolifically on these issues and eventually became the director of the Rock Art Research Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand, retiring in 2000 to become professor emeritus of cognitive archaeology at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.

Importance to theatre and performance studies

While still utilising semiotic theory, David’s Ph.D. had inevitably began to move into the field of Performance Studies, focussing upon the various San ritual ceremonies, particularly the Healing Dance or (so called) Trance Dance, the Shaman and their connection to the rock art. His Ph.D. dissertation was published as Believing and Seeing: Symbolic Meaning in Southern San Rock Paintings; and was then followed by more than 135 articles in a wide variety of academic journals. He was also to write (or co-write) more than 16 books. Of particular interest in Theatre Research and Performance Studies are his studies of ritual and Performance among the San, and the interpretation of the San rock art. Among them The Shamans of prehistory: trance magic and the painted caves. (Lewis-Williams, D.J. and Clottes, J., 1998); The Mind in the Cave: Consciousness and the Origins of Art (2002) and San Spirituality: Roots, Expressions and Social Consequences (2004).




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