Kickin’ it Old School; or, Yes, but does it come in black?

by Toby J. Swaford, K-12 Education Coordinator

Photo from Scientific American

This story has it all; history, science, footwear.

A team of archaeologists have found a leather shoe dating back to 5,500 years ago, while working in an Armenian cave at an elevation of 10,000 feet. The cool, dry conditions of the cave, described as being lined with sheep dung, created an almost perfect environment to preserve the leather material. The cave has proven to be a warehouse of discovery and the team has catalogued a variety of other well-preserved artifacts including a broken pot and sheep horns – that dung had to come from someplace. They’ve also come across a variety of containers holding dried apricots and barley.

So well-preserved was this shoe specimen that the scientists have been able to determine that the maker used vegetable-based oil in the tanning process. While DNA analysis has not been viable with the leather sample, a close  examination of the material’s pores indicates that the leather most likely came from a cow. The style of the shoe has been compared to “Pampooties,” a lace-up bootie worn in the Aran Islands off the coast of Ireland until the 1950s. Similarities to footwear found throughout Europe indicate that this style was in wide use for thousands of years and suited to a variety of environments.

This discovery predates the previous record holder for oldest leather shoe by a few hundred years. Found in 1991, the iceman known as Otzi to the general public (and “Frozen Fritz” to his close friends) sported a pair of leather shoes that dated back roughly 5,300 years. Of course, the oldest shoes currently known were more akin to socks; woven out of grass and wrapped in leather thongs made from deer and bear hide. What they may have lacked in style, they made up for in originality — dating back to more than 7,400 years before present. These were discovered in Arnold Research Cave, located in Callaway County in mid-Missouri.

Editor’s note: I was startled as I read Toby’s post to find Arnold Research Cave (ARC) invoked — as an anthropology undergrad at the University of Missouri, I did my archaeology field school at ARC in the summer of 1981. The shoes found at ARC were uncovered by a previous expedition; we were on the lookout for more, but didn’t uncover any additional specimens during that summer. Nor did we have any idea how old those shoes would turn out to be — they weren’t definitively dated until the late 90s. Small world!

More about Arnold Research Cave: http://users.stlcc.edu/mfuller/arnoldcave.html

Digital Media Coordinator Terry Burton (back right) at Arnold Research Cave, 1981. Now that's old school!

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