Humans may have begun wearing rudimentary shoes as far back as the Middle Stone Age, between 75,000 to 150,000 years ago, according to a recent study. Researchers examined trace fossils from three ancient surfaces found on South Africa’s Cape Coast and found evidence suggesting early humans wore simple foot protection, akin to today’s flip-flops, to traverse the beach.
A 2008 study posited that humans began wearing shoes around 40,000 years ago. This assertion was based on observations of shrinking toe bones due to shoe-wearing. In contrast, earlier this year, a discovery in Europe unveiled what scientists believe to be the continent’s oldest shoes – sandals woven from grass, estimated to be 6,000 years old.
However, the history of footwear might trace back even further.
“The Southern Cape Coast had very sharp rocks at the time. It makes sense that people would use footwear to protect themselves. One hundred thousand years ago, an injury to the foot could have been fatal,” Bernhard Zipfel, a study author, said in a news release.
Tracing the Footsteps of History
The ephemeral nature of materials like leather and plant fiber means that physical evidence of ancient shoes is unlikely to survive. This challenge brings ichnology—the study of fossil tracks and traces—into the spotlight. By examining footprints, scientists can infer whether early humans wore any form of foot covering.
Sites with such ancient footprints are rare. Only four known sites date back more than 30,000 years, and all are located in Western Europe. Zipfel’s team shifted their focus to tracksites along the Cape Coast, identifying 350 vertebrate tracksites, some of which show human tracks without distinct toe impressions.
To understand these ancient footprints, the team first studied footwear depictions in rock art and the oldest known physical footwear examples. They then recreated various early footwear types and tested them on the beaches and dunes of the Cape south coast, comparing the resulting footprints to the ancient ones.
Their experiments indicated that a hard-soled, open design most closely matched the fossilized footprints. These early humans likely crafted such footwear to navigate the Cape Coast’s sharp rocks, mitigating the threat of severe injuries. Protection against extreme temperatures might have also been a driving factor.
However, the team treads carefully in drawing conclusions. Interpreting rock markings is challenging, and no definitive Middle Stone Age shoes have been unearthed.
“While our evidence is inconclusive, we are pleased with our discoveries nonetheless. We contribute to the research about when humans wore shoes,” Zipfel said in a news release. “The research findings strongly suggest that the region of southern Africa has been a hub for developing cognitive and practical abilities for an extended period.”
The study was published in the journal Ichnos.