When Did Humans First Wear Shoes?

Written by Camilla Jessen

Mar.21 - 2024 9:09 AM CET

Photo: Shutterstock.com
Photo: Shutterstock.com
Researchers have a good understanding that the Romans wore leather sandals, but what is the oldest known footwear?

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In 2023, a research team led by paleontologist Charles W. Helm interpreted three fossilized human footprints along South Africa's southern coast as the earliest evidence of footwear use to date.

Though the footprints were clear, they lacked visible toe impressions, suggesting they were made by some type of shoe, likely featuring a strap.

While the footprints themselves weren't directly dated, but dating of nearby finds led Charles Helm to estimate that these footprints were made at least 70,000 years ago, possibly up to 130,000 years ago.

Ancient Humans Wore Flip-Flops

To test whether the tracks were really made with a primitive shoe, the researchers constructed various types of footwear themselves. They based their designs on sandals from the San people of the Kalahari Desert and other early examples of preserved shoes.

The researchers concluded that the footprints on South Africa's south coast were made with open footwear equipped with a solid sole. The shoes were most similar to a pair of modern-day flip-flops that protected the wearer against the coast's sharp stones and scorching sand.

From a technological standpoint, making footwear was feasible for humans of that era. Evidence from 70,000-year-old processed bones discovered in Blombos Cave, also on South Africa's southern coast, are presumed to have been used as sewing tools.

The oldest preserved footwear discovered to date originates from the so-called Arnold Research Cave in North America and is approximately 8,300 years old.

At least 70,000 years ago, humans began to use flip-flop-like footwear.

Why Make Shoes?

Considering this fascinating research, one might wonder why our ancient ancestors decided to create footwear after surviving barefoot for so long.

It's possible that once they had mastered the skills to craft complex clothing with the aid of bone tools, developing footwear was a natural progression. Today, the sharp rocks along the Cape coast pose a risk of cuts and lacerations to anyone barefoot. In the Middle Stone Age, around 130,000 years ago, such an injury could have easily led to a fatal infection.

Additionally, the need for protection against extreme temperatures might have been another reason, suggesting that shoes might have been used sparingly at first.

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