Matsieng’s Footprints

A few days ago, I went to see the Matsieng Footprints, about half an hour’s drive north from Gaborone.  Matsieng is an important historical site for the Batswana who live in this area, and in previous years was used as a pilgrimage site.

Parking on the dusty side of the road under a shady morula tree, I walked for about ten minutes through the dry and overgrown bush to the small site office of the National Museum where I met  my guide for the walk to the Footprints.  At this time of year, this area at the edge of the Kalahari is slowly coming to life, and the knob thorns were in full flower along the path.  As we walked, the guide told me the story of Matsieng.

The Batswana have a rich oral tradition, which says that Matsieng is the place where the giant, one-legged ancestor of the Batswana, Matsieng, emerged from below the earth, followed by his people and by animals, both domestic and wild.  Consequently, for the last few centuries, the site of his footprints has been used as a rain-making site for the Batswana.

The site itself is a flat expanse of sandstone, with two deep and narrow holes which hold a significant amount of water, long into the dry winter months.  The 8000 square metre slab of sandstone is now crisscrossed by wooden walkways designed to protect the footprints.  The prints are faint and mostly hard to see, but are clearly representations of an oversize human foot surrounded by the smaller prints of a variety of animals.  Archaeologists now believe that these are in fact engravings in the rock, made less than 2000 years ago by the ancestors of the modern day Basarwa (Bushmen).  Some have clearly been enlarged or gone over to deepen the engraving, but erosion has significantly damaged many of the remaining prints.

Standing at the lip of one of the waterholes looking out over the flat expanse of rock, it was easier to believe the Tswana story of creation than the archaeologists’ views. There is a sense of the ancient about Matsieng, and so far from the road and the signs of civilization as we know it, a sense of truly having entered a prehistoric world.