Ancient shoe steps out of cave and into limelight

Armenian cave yields oldest known leather footwear

A new find has given archaeologists a rare foothold on Copper Age life. Excavations of an Armenian cave have uncovered the oldest known leather shoe, a slip-on, lace-up model from roughly 5,500 years ago. It’s about the size of a woman’s size 7 today.

A STEP BACK Excavators discovered this 5,500-year-old cowhide shoe in an Armenian cave. It’s the oldest known leather shoe and provides a glimpse of life during a poorly understood part of the Copper Age. Gasparian/Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography of the Natl. Acad. Sciences, Armenia
SHOE CENTRAL Map shows the location of Armenia’s Areni-1 Cave (marked by a red square), where scientists found the world’s oldest known leather shoe. R. Pinhasi

A team led by archaeologist Ron Pinhasi of University College Cork in Ireland, found the shoe in 2008, under a broken jar at the bottom of a shallow, plastered pit in the Areni-1 Cave. A deer’s shoulder blade, two wild-goat horns, a fish vertebra, scattered reeds and pottery shards also rested in the pit.

A 6,000-year-old preserved human brain was also recovered at Areni-1 in 2008.

The shoe consists of a single piece of cowhide that wrapped around the right foot, the scientists report in a paper published online June 9 in PLoS ONE. A leather lace running through eyelets pulled the hide together on top of the foot and another connected flaps at the wearer’s heel.

Grass was stuffed inside the shoe, probably to maintain its shape during storage, the researchers suggest.

It’s unclear whether a man or woman wore the shoe. Radiocarbon testing of small pieces of the shoe and its grass stuffing provided an age estimate.

Cowhide sandals from a Copper Age grave in Israel are thought to be about as old as the Areni-1 shoe, but have not been radiocarbon dated. Other one-piece cowhide shoes with laces have been found at European sites ranging in age from about 3,600 to 1,500 years ago.

The shoes found at Areni-1 look much like shoes worn in modern times on Ireland’s Aran Islands. “This is a shoe in the modern sense, in that the same technology and manufacturing method utilized by the Areni-1 people prevailed until the 1950s in Ireland and other parts of Europe,” Pinhasi says.

Excavations in the 1970s at a Missouri cave yielded the world’s oldest known footwear of any type, 9,000- to 7,000-year-old sandals made from fiber or possibly leather. The sandals, which include woven straps, required more steps to make than the Areni-1 shoe, remarks archaeologist Michael O’Brien of the University of Missouri in Columbia.

Still, ancient shoe makers at Areni-1 knew what they were doing. “They produced a fairly rugged piece of footwear that was ideally suited for their environment,” O’Brien says. At the time, the area would have been mainly flat grassland with a cool, dry climate.

–tzi the Iceman, a 5,300-year-old frozen mummy discovered in 1991 in the Italian Alps, wore remnants of deer- and bear-leather shoes with upper and lower parts held together by straps.

Shoes from Areni-1 and –tzi, as well as the ancient Israeli sandals, reflect regional differences in shoe-making techniques and styles during the 4th millennium B.C., Pinhasi proposes.

There’s currently no way to determine if similar leather footwear was invented at different European and Asian sites or if it originated in one place and was swiftly adopted by other groups, comments archaeologist Michael Petraglia of the University of Oxford in England.

At Areni-1, cool dry conditions helped to preserve ancient artifacts, including large containers holding wheat, barley, apricots and other foods. A layer of sheep dung covering the cave floor further aided preservation.

“There are children’s graves at the back of the cave, but so little is known about this period that we cannot say why all these different objects were found together,” Pinhasi says.

Researchers also know little about when people first started sporting shoes. Studies have found that Stone Age human skeletons from Europe display unusually small toes, suggestive of footwear use by 40,000 years ago.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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