When did we first wear shoes? Prior to a study by American physical anthropologist Erik Trinkaus, the answer was unclear. Shoes tend to be made from highly perishable plant or animal material, and do not survive well in the material record. Indeed, the oldest-known shoes (from California) date from around 7,000 BC. Now, Trinkaus suggests that sturdy shoes first came into widespread use sometime between 40,000 and 26,000 years ago.

The study is based on an examination of toes from early modern humans and Neaderthals, dated to between 100,000 and 20,000 years ago. Prof. Trinkaus discovered a change in the toes of the people living in the Middle Palaeolithic – between c. 100,000 to 40,000 years ago – and the subsequent middle Upper Palaeolithic – c. 28,000 to 20,000 BP.

The change occurred in the four ‘lesser’ toes – all but the big toe – of the early modern humans. Trinkaus suggests that the anatomical change in modern humans may well be due to the invention of tough shoes that reduced the tendency of the smaller toes to provide traction. ‘Walking barefoot promotes stronger little toes because walking without shoes makes you grip the ground with your toes as a natural reflex, whereas hard-soled shoes form a barrier between the lesser toes and the ground, thereby reducing the stress on those smaller toes’, he explained.

To test the theory that ‘lesser’ toes weaken with shoe-use, the Washington University professor compared the foot bones of early Native Americans who – according to the ethnographic records – regularly went barefoot, with the toes of their contemporary sealskin-boot wearing Alaskan Inuits.

The results confirmed his theory: the barefooted Americans developed sturdier toes, whereas the shoe-wearers had weaker toes. Thus, the difference is not an evolutionary change, but simply the result of reduced stresses on their feet during their lives. Trinkaus does not hold with the theory that chunkier toes and fingers are related to greater blood supply in colder climates.

Of course, c. 28,000 years ago is an important time in human development – it marks the dawn of a cultural explosion that produced many other notable human advances – including ‘wow factor’ rock art, portable art, and intricate tools. Though humans may have roughly covered their feet for scores of millennia, advanced shoe-making skills may be part of this overall increase in technological ingenuity.

So, I have been right all along, you really can judge a man by his shoes.


This article is an extract from the full article published in World Archaeology Issue 13. Click here to subscribe

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