Toe Bones Reveal World's Earliest Shoe-Wearers

John Pickrell in London
for National Geographic News
October 24, 2005

A new analysis of toe bones suggests that ancient people from Europe and the Middle East were the first to adopt supportive footwear—most likely primitive sandals—around 30,000 years ago.

Before that time, most humans went barefoot—regardless of their environment.

Researchers at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, found that humans at the end of the Old Stone Age had weaker small-toe bones than their ancestors but no corresponding loss of leg strength.

The finding suggests that the ancient humans were using footwear for support for the first time in history.

Humans from the far north are thought to have begun insulating their feet from the snow around 50,000 years ago.

However, the coverings provided no support, and no similar footwear is known from Europe or the Middle East during the same period.

Rapidly Degradable

Pinpointing the origin of shoes has been a difficult task, because footwear made of leather or plant materials degrades rapidly.

Currently the oldest surviving shoes are mostly complete sandals from California that date to 9,000 years ago. Other evidence comes from fossilized footprints.

Eric Trinkaus, a physical anthropologist at Washington University, tried a different approach and decided to look for changes in human foot anatomy between 10,000 and 100,000 years ago.

"The [best] evidence for earliest forms of foot protection is likely to be indirect," Trinkaus said.

He has shown that modern Alaskan Inuits, who sport sealskin boots, have less sturdy toes than other ancient Native Americans, who are known to have gone barefoot.

Continued on Next Page >>


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