Although most fashion changes with the seasons, there are some that have stood the test of time - denim jeans, the little black dress, purple crushed velvet bell-bottoms. But there is one item of clothing whose longevity outshines all of these – the humble moccasin. In 2008 an international team of archaeologists discovered a well preserved and complete leather shoe that was dated at around 5,500 years old – that’s one thousand years older than the Great Pyramid of Giza and around the time it's thought the wheel first began to be used in Mesopotamia.

The leather shoe measured 24.5 cm long, 7.6 to 10 cm wide and was made from a single piece of leather that wrapped around the wearer’s foot. The shoe was worn and shaped to the wearer’s right foot, particularly around the heel and big toe where the highest pressure is exerted in normal gait. Thanks to the cool, dry conditions of the sheep dung-lined Armeni-1 cave in Armenia where it was found the shoe was so well preserved that the archeologists initially thought it was just 600 or 700 years old.

The shoe was stuffed with loose, unfastened grass (Poaceae), which may have been used to maintain the shape of the shoe and/or prepare it for storage – although the owner of the shoe probably didn’t plan on storing it for over 5,000 years.

Dating the shoe

To date the shoe two leather samples and one grass sample from the shoe were dated at the Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit (ORAU), while a third leather sample was dated at the University of California-Irvine Accelerator Mass Spectrometry Facility (UCIAMS). The R_Combine function for the three leather samples provides a date range of 3627–3377 Cal BC (95.4% confidence interval) and the calibrated range for the straw is contemporaneous (3627–3377 Cal BC).

This provides solid evidence of the use of footwear among Old World populations since at least the Chalcolithic period. Also known as the Copper Age, this was when the use of early metal tools started to appear alongside the use of stone tools.

Old, older, oldest

Prior to the shoe’s discovery, the earliest known shoe in Eurasia was worn by Ötzi, the Iceman, who has been dated to 3365–3118 BC. However, various older sandals, moccasins and slip-on footwear have been recovered from Arnold Research Cave, Missouri. There the earliest specimens are sandals made from fiber and/or leather, the oldest of which are around 7,500 years old, predating any footwear recovered in the Old World.

More than coincidence?

The archaeologists say that the fact that enormous similarities exist between the manufacturing technique and style of one-piece leather-hide shoes found across Europe and the one from Areni-1 Cave, suggest that shoes of this type were worn for millennia across a large and environmentally diverse geographic region. Given the simplicity of these shoes, it is possible that the design and technology of the shoe was independently invented in various locations across Europe and Southwest Asia. The similarity of the cut and lacing is striking, however, so it also plausible that the technology was invented in one place and spread across the region.

Although the shoe from Areni-1 is the oldest of its type and also the oldest shoe from Eurasia, given the rarity of such finds it is impossible at this stage to assess when and where the first footwear of this type was first developed. It is likely, however, that the earliest footwear predates the Areni-1 shoe significantly. My money’s on a pair of platform shoes with a goldfish inside worn by cave-women being unearthed in an archaeological dig very soon.

A paper describing the Areni-1 shoe, "First Direct Evidence of Chalcolithic Footwear from the Near Eastern Highlands," appears in the journal PLoS ONE.

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