A new analysis of ancient footprints in South Africa suggests that the humans who made the footprints may have been wearing sandals with hard soles. While researchers are reluctant to reach any firm conclusions regarding the use of shoes in the distant past, the unusual properties of the prints may provide the oldest evidence yet that people used shoes to protect their feet from sharp rocks in the Middle Stone Age.
The study’s authors examined well-preserved marks left on stone tablets at three different sites on the Cape coast, none of which were directly dated. However, based on the age of rocks and other deposits nearby, researchers suggest that the ruins at a site called Kleincrantz may be between 79,000 and 148,000 years old.
Unlike barefoot human footprints, these footprints show no toes, but display “rounded forelimbs, clear margins, and possible evidence of webbing attachment points.” Similar marks were found at a site called Gokama and are estimated to have been left between 73,000 and 136,000 years ago, while the latest example was found at The Woody Cape in Addo Elephant National Park.
“In all cases, the alleged tracks have dimensions that are broadly consistent with hominin tracks,” the study authors wrote. “The track sizes appear to be consistent with those of juvenile tracemakers, or young adult hominin tracemakers,” they say.
To test this conclusion, the researchers made footprints wearing sandals that resembled two different pairs of shoes historically used by the indigenous San people of South Africa, both of which are now in museums. Experiments revealed that using hard-soled shoes on wet sand left marks with clear edges, no toe prints, and gaps where the leather straps meet the sole – just like the marks found in Kleincrantz.
The footprints at the site of Kleinkrantz may have been left as early as 148,000 years ago. Image credit: Charles Helm
“While we do not consider the evidence to be conclusive, we interpret the three sites (…) as indicating the presence of hominin tracemakers who used hard-soled sandals,” the researchers wrote. They offer a possible motivation for the use of such shoes, explaining that coastal foraging involves climbing steep rocks while also posing the risk of stepping on sea urchins.
“In the Middle Stone Age, a major tear in the foot may have been a death sentence,” they say. In this scenario, sandals would have been a lifesaver.
Researchers’ reluctance to make any bold statements is understandable given the difficulty of interpreting rock marks, as well as the fact that no actual Mesolithic shoes have ever been found. Any leather sandals from this period would have long since decayed, leaving a 10,000-year-old pair of woven bark shoes from Oregon as the oldest surviving shoes in the world.
Other examples from Israel and Armenia date back approximately 5,500 years, while Otzi, the mummified Iceman, was also found to have been in possession of sandals when he was killed just over 5,000 years ago.
Prior to this study, the oldest indication of shoe use came from two prints left by Neanderthal children in a cave in Greece 130,000 years ago. Other Neanderthal traces in France have also been interpreted as evidence of trembling feet, although either case is debated.
Highlighting the difficulty of such analyses, the study’s authors point out that tracks discovered in Nevada in the 1880s were initially attributed to a human wearing sandals, but were later shown to have been made by a giant sloth. “In this case, professional paleontologists initially misidentified the tracks of non-human sloths, which are very different from those of barefoot hominins, as hominin tracks,” the researchers wrote.
Not wanting to make such shoddy statements, the authors avoid the opportunity to make any major claims about their findings. However, based on their analyses, they speculate that “humans may have already worn shoes while traversing sand dune surfaces during the Mesolithic”.
The study is published in the journal Ikonos.