Fossilized Footprints Present Evidence of Earliest Known Shoes

When were the first shoes created and worn? While archeologists are not able to pinpoint an exact moment of invention, there are good reasons to believe that walking on artificial soles dates back about 148,000 years. Three sites in South Africa featuring prints from early human ancestors bear some striking signs of footwear. As described in a paper in Ichnos, researchers are working towards developing techniques to recognize shod-hominin tracks. Investigating the origin of the shoe is just beginning.

Three sets of Middle Stone Age prints fossilized in rock were analyzed. Prints at Kleinkrantz were dated by rock analysis to be between 79,000 and 148,000 years old. Prints at Goukamma are similarly between 73,000 and 136,000 years ago. A third set studied are in Addo Elephant National Park. All three sets of prints look suspiciously different from typical fossilized footprints—no toe marks. The paper describes the prints as having “rounded anterior ends, crisp margins, and possible evidence of strap attachment points.” Like modern shoe prints, they have strong edges that do not look like bare feet and imply a hard sole. While the shoes themselves are lost to history, their soleprint suggests straps.

The team compared the prehistoric prints to ones they made themselves using shoes which might be similar in construction. They used a modern version of a traditional San sandal, worn by the San residents of southern Africa, who belong to a variety of Indigenous cultures. These test sandals were hard-soled with leather straps, and upon wet sand they left behind very similar prints to the three prehistoric examples. The similarity supports the supposition that the ancient prints were made with footwear, although this is not yet definitive.

If in fact shoe prints, these could be the earliest known example of footwear. A similarly aged example is a set of 130,000-year-old Neanderthal child prints in Greece. Ancient hominins were at distinct risk of infection and death from stepping on something sharp, so shoes were adaptive long before they were fashionable.

Early humans seem to have made shoes to protect themsleves, judging by the edges and shapes of these prints found in South Africa.

h/t: [IFL Science]

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Madeleine Muzdakis

Madeleine Muzdakis is a Contributing Writer at My Modern Met and a historian of early modern Britain & the Atlantic world. She holds a BA in History and Mathematics from Brown University and an MA in European & Russian Studies from Yale University. Madeleine has worked in archives and museums for years with a particular focus on photography and arts education. When she isn’t writing, she enjoys hiking, film photography, and studying law while cuddling with her cat Georgia.
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