History of Shoes

ancient shoes on display

 Getty Images / Manan Vatsayayana

The history of shoes — that is to say, archaeological and paleoanthropological evidence for the earliest use of protective coverings for the human foot — appears to start during the Middle Paleolithic period of approximately 40,000 years ago.

The Oldest Shoes

The oldest shoes recovered to date are sandals found at several Archaic (~6500-9000 years bp) and a few Paleoindian (~9000-12,000 years bp) sites in the American southwest. Dozens of Archaic period sandals were recovered by Luther Cressman at the Fort Rock site in Oregon, direct-dated ~7500 BP. Fort Rock-style sandals have also been found at sites dated 10,500-9200 cal BP at Cougar Mountain and Catlow Caves.

Others include the Chevelon Canyon sandal, direct-dated to 8,300 years ago, and some cordage fragments at the Daisy Cave site in California (8,600 years bp).

In Europe, preservation has not been as fortuitous. Within the Upper Paleolithic layers of the cave site of Grotte de Fontanet in France, a footprint apparently shows that the foot had a moccasin-like covering on it. Skeletal remains from the Sunghir Upper Paleolithic sites in Russia (ca 27,500 years bp) appear to have had foot protection. That's based on the recovery of ivory beads found near the ankle and foot of a burial.

A complete shoe was discovered at the Areni-1 Cave in Armenia and reported in 2010. It was a moccasin-type shoe, lacking a vamp or sole, and it has been dated to ~5500 years BP.

Evidence for Shoe Use in Prehistory

Earlier evidence for shoe use is based on anatomical changes that may have been created by wearing shoes. Erik Trinkaus has argued that wearing footwear produces physical changes in the toes, and this change is reflected in human feet beginning in the Middle Paleolithic period. Basically, Trinkaus argues that narrow, gracile middle proximal phalanges (toes) compared with fairly robust lower limbs implies "localized mechanical insulation from ground reaction forces during heel-off and toe-off."

He proposes that footwear was used occasionally by archaic Neanderthal and early modern humans in the Middle Paleolithic, and consistently by early modern humans by the middle Upper Paleolithic.

The earliest evidence of this toe morphology noted to date is at the Tianyuan 1 cave site in Fangshan County, China, about 40,000 years ago.

Concealed Shoes

Historians have noted that shoes seem to have a special significance in some, perhaps many cultures. For example, in 17th and 18th century England, old, worn-out shoes were concealed in the rafters and chimneys of homes. Researchers such as Houlbrook suggest that although the precise nature of the practice is unknown, a concealed shoe may share some properties with other hidden examples of ritual recycling such as secondary burials, or may be a symbol of protection of the home against evil spirits. The time-depth of some particular significance of shoes appears to date from at least the Chalcolithic period: Tell Brak's Eye-Temple in Syria included a limestone votive shoe. Houlbrook's article is a good starting point for people investigating this curious issue.


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Hirst, K. Kris. "History of Shoes." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, thoughtco.com/the-history-of-shoes-170943. Hirst, K. Kris. (2020, August 28). History of Shoes. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/the-history-of-shoes-170943 Hirst, K. Kris. "History of Shoes." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/the-history-of-shoes-170943 (accessed March 31, 2023).