Humanity’s early ancestors started dabbling with bipedalism — walking on two legs — as much as 6 to 7 million years ago. It took a while to find our evolutionary footing, but by 3 million years later, the fossil record shows that hominins were pretty well committed to being upstanding.
Walking on two legs was literally a great step forward for us. Bipedal locomotion is far more energy-efficient than using both arms and legs to propel us forward, as many primates still do. Conserving energy translates into better endurance, which early humans leveraged to their advantage. Back in the day, we were marathon walkers and runners, able to outlast — and pursue to exhaustion — just about any animal we wanted to hunt down.
No doubt about it: Becoming bipedal was one of the most important evolutionary events in the history of our species. This key adaptation helped cement humanity’s position as the dominant species on the planet — and we got there on our own two feet.
But this naturally begs a question: When did it occur to humans to protect those feet with shoes or sandals? The precise timing of the origin of footwear remains one of the great mysteries in archaeology, anthropology, and human evolution.
“Nobody really knows when shoes were invented. Because shoes don’t fossilize. They don’t [easily] preserve in the archaeological record,” noted Daniel Lieberman, chair of the Department of Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard, in his 2022 Discover interview.
But decades of sole searching have turned up some astounding evidence of high-quality prehistoric footwear. Here are just a few examples of the earliest known shoes and sandals, as well as some theories about how far back we might have first started cobbling them together.
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(Credit: South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology)
For many years, the best and oldest known shoes belonged to one remarkable individual. History has no record of his real name, but researchers have come to know him as Ötzi the Iceman, a Copper Age man whose body was found in 1991, mummified and astoundingly well-preserved in a thawing glacier in the Ötztal Alps on what is now the border of Austria and Italy.
Dating back as far as 3350 B.C.E, Ötzi’s body, and especially his clothing and equipment, helped redefine much of what archaeologists and anthropologists understood about our prehistoric forebears. Ötzi lived at a transitional time between the end of the Stone Age and the beginning of the Bronze Age and sported a surprisingly sophisticated pair of fur-lined, grass-cushioned shoes.
The shoes were fashioned from different types of fur and hide — including bear, deer, and cow. The mix of both wild and domesticated animal components indicates that Ötzi had access to a diverse range of materials from both farming and hunting cultures, which helped to create shoes that would allow him to perform different tasks and withstand both cold and wet weather.
In fact, researchers have reconstructed modern versions of his shoes and found them to be remarkably comfortable and durable in the elements. Although older examples of human footwear have since been found, Ötzi’s shoes remain treasured artifacts.
Read More: Who Was Ötzi the Iceman?
(Credit: Pinhasi R, Gasparian B, Areshian G, Zardaryan D, Smith A, et al./CC BY-SA 4.0/Wikimedia Commons)
Eventually, in 2008, scientists discovered an example of yet another archaic shoe design. Found in a cave (designated “Areni-1”) in Armenia, one shoe — laces and all — was fortuitously preserved in a layer of ancient sheep dung. This shoe looks surprisingly like a modern leather moccasin or slipper that you might buy from your favorite local outfitters.
Dating to around 3500 B.C.E, this lace-up-and-leather artifact currently remains history’s oldest known shoe (as we define apparel that encases the entire foot). But it is by no means the oldest known foot protection in existence.
Read More: 5,500-Year-Old Shoe Found in Armenian Cave
(Credit: Jerónimo Roure Pérez, CC BY-SA 4.0/Wikimedia Commons)
Sandals, it turns out, are the most ancient type of human footwear yet discovered. While they generally don’t enclose much of the foot, sandals do have the virtue of providing some support and protection to soles and heels — particularly useful when migrating across rocky terrain or relentlessly pursuing prey across an inhospitable landscape.
The earliest known examples of sandals in Europe were discovered in a cave in southern Spain. Woven from dried, braided grass, these sandals were intricately made and denote a level of complexity and care in construction that suggests humans were already well-versed in protecting their feet, probably for many thousands of years.
(Credit: Ian Poellet/OHS/CC BY-SA 4.0/Wikimedia Commons)
But the very oldest specimens of footwear currently known are the so-called Great Basin Sandals found in Oregon. Made by Indigenous people from sagebrush bark and other fibrous materials, these sandals were, in their way, as intricately constructed as their counterparts across the pond. But unlike the Spanish sandals from Europe, this footwear is about 2,000 years older, which makes them the current champions in the inventory of the prehistoric shoe store.
Still, current research suggests that those sandals are by no means the oldest possible shoes that could have been made. Even without older artifacts surviving to present day, scientists have gleaned evidence to indicate that humans have been wearing shoes for a lot longer than 8,000 years.
Lieberman, the Harvard evolutionary biologist, surmised that shoes were probably common among prehistoric humans by as early as 35,000 to 50,000 years ago, although there would have been trade-offs to adopting such footgear. “Shoes are comfortable,” Lieberman told Discover. “They protect your feet from heat and cold and from things that would puncture you. And they can also sometimes reduce how much work your foot muscles have to do. But they also come with a cost.”
(Credit: Charles Helm) Possible shod hominin tracks in the Garden Route National Park, South Africa.
In a 2008 study, researchers noted that cost when they analyzed the toe bones of ancient human remains as old as 40,000 years. While they had no evidence of shoes or sandals themselves, they did find that certain bones were rather weak and underdeveloped when compared to the bones of other humans — including more modern Indigenous people — who were known to go perpetually barefoot.
From this evidence, the science suggests that the adoption of shoes could account for less robust development of those 40,000-year-old bones, but the study has remained controversial.
More recently, in August 2023, archaeologists found a set of preserved footprints whose edges and general shape look distinctly as though some form of footwear could have made them. The prints are as much as 148,000 years old, far, far older than the most ancient shoes or sandals yet discovered.
Although this research is also being debated, if confirmed, it could be the most important discovery in the history of shoes. But even then, in the sweeping annals of human ingenuity and adaptation, it would still be a footnote.
Read More: Oldest Evidence Yet of Human Footwear