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Scientists discover fossilized footprints giving proof about the earliest shoes known to mankind

There is convincing evidence that talks about the use of artificial soles for walking and it dates back to approximately 148,000 years ago.

Scientists discover fossilized footprints giving proof about the earliest shoes known to mankind
Representative Cover Image Source: Pexels | cottonbro studio

The origins of the first shoes and when they were first worn have long puzzled researchers in palaeoanthropology. While archaeologists cannot pinpoint the exact moment of their invention, there is compelling evidence to suggest that the use of artificial soles for walking dates back approximately 148,000 years ago. Specifically, three sites in South Africa, which contain footprints from early human ancestors, exhibit distinct signs of footwear. In a recent publication in the journal Ichnos, scientists are actively developing methods to identify tracks made by early humans wearing shoes. This marks just the beginning of the investigation into the origins of footwear.

Image Source: Pexels | Tom Fisk
Representative Image Source: Pexels | Tom Fisk

The Victoria and Albert Museum houses an unparalleled collection of over 2,000 pairs of shoes spanning more than 3,000 years of history and originating from various cultures worldwide. Based on this resource, a chronological overview of the evolution of shoe design is presented. It encompasses everything from the ornate stitching of hemp shoes discovered on the ancient Silk Road dating back to the first century BCE to the iconic Venetian platform shoes commonly seen in the 16th century. This historical progression in shoe height, heel shapes, and materials reveals the cyclical nature of fashion across centuries, highlighting that many styles we consider modern have had their moments in history.



 

The paper focused on analyzing three sets of Middle Stone Age footprints preserved in rock. Through rock analysis, the footprints at Kleinkrantz were estimated to be between 79,000 and 148,000 years old, those at Goukamma between 73,000 and 136,000 years old, and a third set in Addo Elephant National Park. These footprints differ significantly from typical fossilized footprints as they lack toe imprints. Instead, the paper says that they exhibit “rounded anterior ends, crisp margins, and possible evidence of strap attachment points.” These footprints resemble modern shoe prints, characterized by distinct edges that do not resemble bare feet, suggesting the presence of hard soles. While the actual shoes have been lost to history, the imprints they left behind provide strong evidence of straps.



 

To substantiate their findings, the research team compared the prehistoric footprints with ones they created using shoes that might have been constructed similarly. The paper mentions that they employed a contemporary version of the traditional San sandal, worn by the San people of southern Africa who represent various indigenous cultures. These experimental sandals, equipped with hard soles and leather straps, left remarkably similar impressions in wet sand to the three prehistoric examples. This similarity lends credence to the hypothesis that these ancient footprints were indeed created by individuals wearing footwear, although it remains inconclusive.

Representative Image Source: Pexels | evan
Representative Image Source: Pexels | evan

If these impressions do indeed represent shoe prints, they could be the earliest known evidence of footwear. Before this research, the earliest evidence of using footwear was traced back to two imprints left by Neanderthal youngsters inside a Greek cave around 130,000 years ago. These recent new findings suggest that early humans likely fashioned shoes as a protective measure against injury and infection, given the distinctive edges and shapes of the footprints discovered in South Africa. This demonstrates that the use of shoes was driven by necessity long before it became a matter of fashion.

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