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.

The work suggests that wearing shoes promotes more delicate small toes. When people walk barefoot, the four smaller toes on each foot flex to allow better traction. This promotes growth of sturdy toe bones.

By contrast, sandals, sneakers, and other supportive footwear lessens the load on the four small toes, thus weakening them.

Trinkaus compared the toe anatomy of western Eurasian human skeletons from the Middle and Upper Paleolithic periods (about 100,000 to 40,000 years ago and 40,000 to 10,000 years ago, respectively).

The anatomy of the skeletons' feet began to change around 26,000 to 30,000 years ago, becoming more delicate in later skeletons, the anthropologist found.

"I discovered that the bones of the little toes of humans from that time frame were much less strongly built than those of their ancestors, while their leg bones remained large and strong," Trinkaus said. "The most logical cause would be the introduction of supportive footwear."

"[These] people were routinely using semi-rigid- to rigid-soled shoes, boots, and sandals to protect the foot," he said.

The findings are detailed in a recent edition of the Journal of Archaeological Science.

Support and Skepticism

Mike O'Brien directs the Museum of Anthropology at the University of Missouri-Columbia.

He said it's frustrating that the earliest direct evidence of footwear comes from North America, when "almost assuredly Upper Paleolithic peoples living in Europe and elsewhere were wearing footwear before anyone entered the Americas, 13,000 years ago."

"Looking at the anatomical evidence of footwear is a very novel and interesting approach," he said. "And the evidence strongly suggests that there was a significant increase in the use of footwear between Middle Paleolithic and middle Upper Paleolithic humans."

"Did Upper Paleolithic people always wear shoes? Apparently not always, but certainly routinely," O'Brien said.

Cameron Kippen, a podiatrist and shoe historian with Curtin University of Technology in Perth, Australia, counters that "the idea that shoes influenced toe function seems unlikely. But it is an interesting theory."

Kippen argues that shoes have made little genetic impact on foot anatomy in the last 9,000 years. He also notes that majority of the population would still have been barefoot even after shoes were adopted.

"There are still more people unshod today on Earth than wear shoes," he said.

Kippen believes that shoes first appeared as a decorative garment worn by only a few important people in a tribe—perhaps witch doctors and chieftains—on special occasions.

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