Humans Wore Shoes 40,000 Years Ago, Fossils Indicate

Scott Norris
for National Geographic News
July 1, 2008
Humans were wearing shoes at least 10,000 years earlier than previously thought, according to a new study.

The evidence comes from a 40,000-year-old human fossil with delicate toe bones indicative of habitual shoe-wearing, experts say.

A previous study of anatomical changes in toe bone structure had dated the use of shoes to about 30,000 years ago.

Now the dainty-toed fossil from China suggests that at least some humans were sporting protective footwear 10,000 years further back, during a time when both modern humans and Neandertals occupied portions of Europe and Asia.

(Related: Atlas of the Human Journey)

Study author Erik Trinkaus, a paleoanthropologist at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, said the scarcity of toe bone fossils makes it hard to determine when habitual shoe-wearing became widespread.

However, he noted, even Neandertals may have been strapping on sandals.

"Earlier humans, including Neanderthals, show [some] evidence of occasionally wearing shoes," Trinkaus said.

Regular shoe use may have become common by 40,000 years ago, but "we still have no [additional] evidence from that time period—one way or the other," the scientist said.

The study by Trinkaus and Chinese co-author Hong Shang appears in the July issue of the Journal of Archaeological Science.

Tale of the Toes

In a previous study, Trinkaus found that shoe-wearing and barefoot human groups show characteristic differences in the size and strength of their middle toe bones.

Consistent shoe use results in a more delicate bone structure, because footwear reduces the force on middle toes during walking.

In his latest study, this anatomical evidence allowed Trinkaus to date the origin of shoes to a period long before the oldest known shoe remains.

Elizabeth Semmelhack curates the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto, Canada. She said given what we know about the effects of shoe-wearing, Trinkaus' approach makes perfect sense.

"The simple act of wearing shoes alters the structure of our feet," Semmelhack said.

"It's interesting that [Trinkaus] is looking at these prehistoric remains and coming to the same conclusions."

Function vs. Fashion

The first forms of protective footwear probably evolved from simple wrappings used to insulate the feet from snow and freezing temperatures, experts say.

The oldest preserved shoe remains, dating to roughly 10,000 years ago from the western United States, are simple sandals woven of plant fibers.

But at some point shoes stopped being mere protection and become a fashion item.

Some anthropologists have suggested that even the earliest shoes may have served a more symbolic than protective function.

Beads found around the ankles and feet of human skeletons dated to 27,000 years ago suggest the presence of decorated footwear, Trinkaus said.

"History is replete with examples of impractical, irrational shoes," noted shoe museum curator Semmelhack.

"The actual first shoes may have been created out of necessity. But elements of irrationality probably crept in very early on," she said.

"Even these ancient people were probably trying to express something."

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