Photograph courtesy Gregory Areshian
Published June 9, 2010
A Manolo Blahnik it isn't.
Still, the world's oldest known leather shoe, revealed Wednesday, struck one of the world's best known shoe designers as shockingly au courant. "It is astonishing," Blahnik said via email, "how much this shoe resembles a modern shoe!"
Stuffed with grass, perhaps as an insulator or an early shoe tree, the 5,500-year-old moccasin-like shoe was found exceptionally well preserved—thanks to a surfeit of sheep dung—during a recent dig in an Armenian cave.
About as big as a current women's size seven (U.S.), the shoe was likely tailor-made for the right foot of its owner, who could have been a man or a woman—not enough is known about Armenian feet of the era to say for sure.
Made from a single piece of cowhide—a technique that draws premium prices for modern shoes under the designation "whole cut"—the shoe is laced along seams at the front and back, with a leather cord.
"The hide had been cut into two layers and tanned, which was probably quite a new technology," explained Ron Pinhasi, co-director of the dig, from University College Cork in Ireland.
Yvette Worrall, a shoemaker for the Conker handmade-shoe company in the U.K., added, "I'd imagine the leather was wetted first and then cut and fitted around the foot, using the foot as a last [mold] to stitch it up there and then."
The end result looks surprisingly familiar for something so ancient—and not just to Blahnik.
"It immediately struck me as very similar to a traditional form of Balkan footwear known as the opanke, which is still worn as a part of regional dress at festivals today," said Elizabeth Semmelhack, a curator at the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto, Canada.
"I thought, Wow, not so much has changed."
Oldest Leather Shoe Shows Stunning Preservation
Radiocarbon dated to about 3500 B.C., during Armenia's Copper Age, the prehistoric shoe is compressed in the heel and toe area, likely due to miles upon miles of walking. But the shoe is by no means worn out.
Shoes of this age are incredibly rare, because leather and plant materials normally degrade very quickly.
But in this case the contents of a pit in the cave, dubbed Areni-1, had been sealed in by several layers of sheep dung, which accumulated in the cave after its Copper Age human inhabitants had gone.
"The cave environment kept it cool and dry, while the dung cemented the finds in," said Pinhasi, lead author of the new study, published by the journal PLoS ONE Wednesday.
Why Was Oldest Leather Shoe Made?
Protecting the foot was probably one of the main reasons people started wearing shoes, and certainly this seems the case for the world's oldest leather shoe.
Around the Armenian cave, "the terrain is very rugged, and there are many sharp stones and prickly bushes," said University of California archaeologist and study co-author Gregory Areshian, who was partly funded by the National Geographic Society's Committee for Research and Exploration. (The National Geographic Society owns National Geographic News.)
Furthermore, shoes like this would have enabled people to cope with extremes of temperature in the region—up to 113°F (45°C) in summer and below freezing in winter—and to travel farther.
"These people were walking long distances. We have found obsidian in the cave, which came from at least 75 miles [120 kilometers] away," he said.
Blahnik, the shoe designer, speculates that even this simple design was worn for style as well as substance.
"The shoe's function was obviously to protect the foot, but I am in no doubt that a certain appearance of a shoe meant belonging to a particular tribe," said Blahnik, who knows a thing or two about expressing identity through attire. "I am sure it was part of the outfit which a specific tribe wore to distinguish their identity from another."
Not the World's Oldest Shoe
Previously, the oldest known closed-toe shoes were those belonging to Ötzi, the "Iceman" found in the Austrian Alps in 1991, who died around 5,300 years ago. (See "Iceman Wore Cattle, Sheep Hides; May Have Been a Herder.")
Sandals meanwhile, have an even longer history, with the oldest specimens, dated to more than 7,000 years ago, discovered in the Arnold Research Cave in central Missouri.
The wearing of shoes, though, is almost certainly older than the oldest known shoes. For example, a weakening of small toe bones found in 40,000-year-old human fossils has been cited as evidence of the advent of shoes.
Compared to Ötzi's shoes, the world's oldest leather shoe is strictly bare-bones, according to Jacqui Wood, an independent archaeologist based in the U.K., who studied Ötzi's shoes and who said the new study's science is sound.
"The Iceman's shoe was in another league altogether," Wood said. "Each base was made from brown bearskin; the side panels were deerskin; and inside was a bark-string net, which pulled tight around the foot.
"By contrast, the Armenian shoe is the most basic of shoes and was probably made worldwide once people decided not to walk about in bare feet." (See pictures of the Iceman.)
It's true that similar shoes have been found at other sites and from other times, but study co-authors Pinhasi and Areshian think it's plausible that the style originated in Armenia.
"Many other inventions, such as wheel-thrown pottery, cuneiform writing, and wool production evolved in the ancient Near East," Pinhasi said. "And so Armenia may give us the earliest clues to a 'prototype' shoe, which later spread to Europe.
Rebecca Shawcross, a shoe historian at the Northampton Museums & Art Gallery in the U.K., said, "You can certainly make a case for this shoe [design] being a forerunner to the North American moccasin, which has gone on to be a popular shoe style, whose influences can be seen in shoes of today—deck shoes; soft, slipper-style shoes for men; and so on."
Beyond the World's Oldest Leather Shoe
With the moccasin mystery largely solved, the study team has plenty more puzzles to solve in Areni-1.
Along with the shoe, the ancient sheep dung had sealed in the horns of a wild goat, bones of red deer, and an upside-down broken pot.
"It is a strange assortment of items," Pinhasi said, "and I wouldn’t be surprised if they have some symbolic meaning"—a meaning that could be revealed as summer, and a new dig season, dawns at Areni-1.
The discovery of the world's oldest known leather shoe was funded by the National Geographic Society, the Chitjian Foundation (Los Angeles), and Joe Gfoeller of the Gfoeller Foundation, the Steinmetz Family Foundation, the Boochever Foundation, and the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology.
Feed the World
National Geographic explores how we can feed the growing population without overwhelming the planet in our food series.
Latest From Nat Geo
Did you know the Atlantic puffin can growl like a chainsaw and honk like a goose?
Flip through nine pictures of these marine mammals in honor of sea otter awareness week.