Archaeologists report a remarkable discovery on South Africa’s Cape Coast that could upend our thinking about the earliest use of one of humankind’s oldest forms of wearable technology.
The new findings suggest that ancient humans may have worn shoes as early as the Middle Stone Age, also known as the Mesolithic period, which is a period in African prehistory.
The discovery, believed to date back between 75,000 and 150,000 years ago, could indicate that ancient humans were far more cognitively complex than generally accepted.
The World’s Most Ancient Wearable Technology
“The shoe, one of the oldest forms of human technology, is the prototype for all other technologies,” wrote Randy Laist, a professor of English at Goodwin University in East Hartford, Connecticut, in an essay, “What do shoes do?”, featured in Aeon in August 2020.
“Vehicles such as cars, boats and rocket ships are like shoes writ large,” Laist mused further in the piece. “Spacesuits, hazmat suits and vaccines are like whole-body shoes.”
While “wearable technology” may not be the first thing to come to mind today when thinking about the shoes we wear, that is very much what they are: one of humankind’s earliest technological innovations, which helped to extend the range of our ancient ancestors and equip their increasingly steady strides for the harsher terrains that explorations far from home, and eventually well beyond the African continent, would eventually bring them.
Based on past archaeological findings, the oldest known shoes date back only about 6000 years and are from parts of Europe. By contrast, previous thinking about the earliest use of shoes in South Africa held that humans were still going entirely barefoot as recently as 2000 years ago.
However, new findings along South Africa’s Cape Coast are poised to change these long-held ideas. Trace fossils in paleosurfaces have revealed what experts believe to be human footprints clad in some variety of crude covering.
Bernhard Zipfel, Ph.D., a researcher at the University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg’s Evolutionary Studies Institute, says that the findings clearly show that ancient humans who left their footprints on a beach along the country’s Cape Coast during the Middle Stone Age had possessed a form of early footwear.
“We all assumed that people were habitually barefoot,” Zipfel recently said. “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,” Zipfel added.
Archaeologists are still unclear about what types of shoes ancient humans might have worn, largely because they were composed of perishable materials which, unlike stone, can degrade after just a few years, making the likelihood that footwear from so long ago might have survived all this time extremely unlikely, even under the very best conditions.
Enter the field of ichnology, which studies the fossil traces left by organisms apart from their preserved physical remains, including ancient footprints, body prints, and other trace fossil (or ichnofossil) evidence that can help researchers gain insights about ancient life on our planet. In the case of scientists like Zipfel, where no ancient shoes are likely to have survived this long, trace fossils offer a unique opportunity to study the footwear that may have been worn by our ancient hominin ancestors if such footprints can be found.
The World’s Oldest Shoes Were Flip Flops
Based on the appearance of the trace fossil discoveries, Zipfel says they most closely resemble “plakkies,” or what is more commonly known as flip flops.
Zipfel, who in addition to his evolutionary studies at Wits is also a podiatrist, says more recent archaeological findings suggest that the ancient shoes that created the trace fossils from the Middle Stone Age are also similar to sandals worn by the San people, also known as the Bushmen, recognized as the oldest inhabitants of Southern Africa.
To learn more about the ancient footwear discoveries, Zipfel and his colleagues wore modern reproductions of various kinds of ancient footwear, trudging along the same beaches where these flip-flop-clad hominins once walked, possibly as much as 150,000 years ago. This allowed them to compare the trace fossils from the tracksites with modern tracks produced with the reproductions of Middle Stone Age footwear.
“There were amazing correlations,” Zipfel said, leading him and his colleagues to believe that there are at least three track sites in the region that appear to have been made by humans wearing an ancient form of footwear.
Zipfel says that while some of the evidence remains inconclusive and much work remains, he and his colleagues were pleased with their discoveries, which they say “contribute to the research about when humans wore shoes.”
“This research has been few and far between,” Zipfel said, adding that he feels the findings “strongly suggest that the region of southern Africa has been a hub for developing cognitive and practical abilities for an extended period.” More can be read about Zipefel and his colleagues’ research at the Wits University website.