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Ancient Humans May Have Used Shoes Over 100,000 Years Ago

human footprint in the rock
Researchers have found evidence that ancient humans may have adopted primitive footwear earlier than previously thought. Credit: artfulblogger / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The findings made at three archaeological sites in South Africa may show that ancient humans have been wearing footwear for over a hundred thousand years, much older than previously thought.

In South Africa, archeologists discovered 153,000-year-old footprints in May 2023. Now, researchers have identified what appear to be human footprints of someone wearing sandals from a hundred thousand years ago.

“We’re not claiming we have conclusive evidence of this,”

says Charles Helm at Nelson Mandela University in Gqeberha, South Africa.

Archeological evidence shows that early hominids and Neanderthals wore different forms of crude foot wrappings. However, footwear made to last is different and is a rare finding. When it was found preserved, the soft leather of the footwear soon hardened in contact with the surrounding environment.

Although researchers hypothesize that the history of clothesmaking predates the surviving evidence, it is very hard to pinpoint the moment in which ancient humans actually began using shoes. When did rags bound in string become real shoes?

The evidence for the adoption of shoes by ancient humans

In 2008, scientists discovered the oldest preserved shoe. The shoe, found in a cave in Armenia, is quite crude.

It is made of a single layer of leather that wrapped around the foot and was filled with straw to help maintain its shape. Despite appearances, it was crafted and sewn from specially made leather string to bind it. The molding of the shoe—worn down from use—shows it fit the foot snugly.

The perfect state of preservation in the straw attests to a certain care the owner of the shoe took of this useful element of clothing.

The Areni-1 shoe is in fact 5,500 years old and was found in a cave in Armenia, as formerly mentioned, along with the oldest winemaking cellar in the world in 2008.

Now, archaeologists have found evidence suggesting people were indeed wearing footwear prior to the Neolithic era. The unusually preserved footprints in South Africa may have been made by people wearing such shoes.

shoe seen from all sides with measurements
Chalcolithic leather shoe with leather string and filled with straw found in Armenian cave—Areni-1, now preserved in the History Museum of Armenia. Credit: Sandstein /CC BY 2.5

Since the exploration and study in this direction are new, Helm and his colleagues haven’t reached a conclusion. In the meantime, they are focusing on setting up a method of reliably distinguishing footprints.

Scientists continue to question whether our first human ancestors really made and used footwear such as sandals as far back as a hundred thousand years ago. According to archaeologists, our ancestors are indeed known to have been using crude footwear.

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