Think of Stone Age humans and you’ll likely have an image in your mind: weather-worn men, women, and children clad in animal skins and bare feet.
Well, while the former things may be true, scientists are quickly finding that the latter may be misinformed.
Emerging evidence suggests that humans may have worn shoes as early as the Middle Stone Age (75,000—150,000 years ago).
To put it in context, to live on the older side of this scale, humans would have been walking with woolly mammoths, woolly rhinoceros, beavers the size of bears, seven-foot camels and sloths weighing more than 1,360 kilograms.
An impressive thought in itself, the research, carried out in South Africa, could mean that our species had complex cognitive and practical abilities much earlier than was previously thought.
Currently, Europe’s oldest known shoes are 6,000 years old. In the 19th century sandals woven from grass were discovered in a bat cave in Spain and plundered, but were reanalysed and radiocarbon dated earlier this year, creating a new record.
Of course, that record may now be smashed. Before this find, it was generally believed that people weren’t wearing shoes before 2,000 years ago.
Now, however, trace fossils from three paleosurfaces found on South Africa’s Cape Coast change that narrative.
Dr Bernhard Zipfel, of Wits’ Evolutionary Studies Institute in Johannesburg, claims that new evidence reveals a time in which humans wore some form of footwear to walk across the scorching hot and relatively dangerous beach.
Writing in the paper, Dr Zipfel said: “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.”
It’s impossible to say what the exact shape and form of footwear was worn by these ancient people, as leather and plant materials would long have biodegraded.
Dr Zipfel and his team have considered “shod” tracks, general footwear tracks found in a place.
The global record of sites attributed to shod trackmakers is sparse, and only four sites older than 30,000 years have been considered which are all located in Western Europe.
However, ichnology, the study of trace fossils, can unlock new insights into the history of humans.
By analysing footprints such as those found in South Africa, researchers like Dr Zipfel can learn more about the behaviour of ancient humans, as well as their movement and interactions.
He believes that the type of shoes worn were plakkies, or what the modern world calls flip flops.
This is reinforced by recent archaeological evidence of sandals worn by San people, members of the indigenous hunter-gatherer cultures of Southern Africa, who are the oldest surviving native cultures of the region.
Creating replicas of the primitive footwear, the researchers walked up and down the very same beaches as those ancient humans did tens of thousands of years ago to study their shod tracks and compare them with the actual tracksites.
Their study has revealed at least three tracksuits used on the Cape South Coast that humans may have made.
Dr Zipfel added: “While our evidence is inconclusive, we are pleased with our discoveries nonetheless.
“We also contribute to the research about when humans wore shoes. This research has been few and far between.
“It is worth noting that the research findings strongly suggest that the region of southern Africa has been a hub for developing cognitive and practical abilities for an extended period.”
Dr. Thomas Hughes is a UK-based scientist and science communicator who makes complex topics accessible to readers. His articles explore breakthroughs in various scientific disciplines, from space exploration to cutting-edge research.