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Footwear From Over 75,000 Years Ago? Some Fascinating Hints

Some researchers focus on changes in human foot bones, others on evidence of foot protection on ancient trackways

Recently, possible evidence for footwear dating from the Middle Stone Age, (75,000-150,000 years ago) was reported from South Africa’s Cape Coast.

It’s a remarkable claim. After all, the earliest known preserved leather shoe is less than 6,000 years old.

But there can be evidence for footwear use other than physical shoes. For example, wearing shoes changes the shape of the human foot. Weight is distributed differently, which affect bones and ligaments. Toe bones, for example, tend to shrink.

In 2008, Washington University anthropologist Erik Trinkaus offered evidence based on this observation that humans had begun wearing shoes about 40,000 years ago.

As Maggie Koerth-Baker explained at LiveScience,

For most of their history, humans had big, thick toe bones. Trinkaus said this was because they were doing more walking, climbing and carrying than we do today. In fact, he said, all their leg bones were bigger as well, for the same reasons. This is true for both Neanderthals and the earliest modern humans.

But, around 40,000 years ago, that began to change. Trinkaus noticed that skeletons from this time period still had strong, thick leg bones, but their toes had suddenly gotten smaller. “They had wimpy toes,” he said. “I tried to figure out what would take away stresses on the toes, but not the legs, and the answer was shoes.”

Maggie Koerth-Baker, “First Shoes Worn 40,000 Years Ago,” LiveScience, June 05, 2008

The search for “shod tracks”

The paper just out this year, which offers evidence of footwear from 75,000 years ago or more, relies on ichnology, the study of fossilized footprints and trackways. Charles Helm and colleagues looked at 350 ancient vertebrate trackways between 70,000 and 150,000 years old, of which three appeared to be “shod tracks” — tracks where it appeared that the human toes were protected by some sort of covering.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised if the finding holds up. University of the Witwatersrand paleoanthropologist Bernhard Zipfel, who is also a podiatrist, suggests:

”We all assumed that people were habitually barefoot. However, 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,” said Zipfel.

Wits University, “Earliest evidence of flip flops in the Middle Stone Age,” Phys.org, October 27, 2023

Zipfel favors the idea that the footwear, if that’s what it is, was some sort of flip-flop or plakkie, such as were worn in antiquity by the San people of South Africa, whose rock art goes back 30,000 years.

Helms’ team tested the feasibility of the idea for themselves, the old-fashioned way:

We crafted various types of footwear and used them to create trackways on the beaches and dunes of the Cape south coast; then we analysed them.

From these experiments it became clear that an open, hard sole design, with tracks made on moist, moderately soft but nonetheless cohesive sand, best fitted the findings at the three fossil tracksites.

Charles Helm, “Ancient Tracks Reveal Oldest Evidence of Footwear Ever Found,” The Conversation, 10 September 2023 The paper requires a subscription.

The researchers are treating their proposed find circumspectly

As science writer Fermin Koop cautions, “Interpreting rock markings is challenging, and no definitive Middle Stone Age shoes have been unearthed.” Helm admits that the find is only a hint. But “Though the evidence is not conclusive, we are excited about our discoveries. They support the notion of southern Africa being one region where human cognitive and practical ability developed a very long time ago.”

Well yes, but maybe it’s not just South Africa. The media release from Wits University puts the significance in more general terms: “This could mean that our species had complex cognitive and practical abilities much earlier than was previously thought.”

Human technology has a long, well-documented history but the human mind does not have a history. No one should be very surprised if researchers do come up with conclusive evidence that humans were protecting their feet 100,000 years ago. That would just demonstrate that the problem for humans, even back then, was not so much envisioning what needs to be done as finding a way to do it.

It’s the part about envisioning what needs to be done — the abstract nature of specifically human thought — that lacks a history. It seems to be part of a perennial, not a natural, history of things.

You may also wish to read: When did humans first start burying the dead? One of the things paleontologists look for is special care taken in the placement of the deceased’s body. How could the insight that the human mind is not material and cannot really die the way the body dies get started? Did it always exist?

Denyse O'Leary

Denyse O'Leary is a freelance journalist based in Victoria, Canada. Specializing in faith and science issues, she is co-author, with neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul; and with neurosurgeon Michael Egnor of the forthcoming The Human Soul: What Neuroscience Shows Us about the Brain, the Mind, and the Difference Between the Two (Worthy, 2025). She received her degree in honors English language and literature.

Footwear From Over 75,000 Years Ago? Some Fascinating Hints