Shoes have survived in some numbers in the archaeological record, and we will get to them in due course. But first there is also indirect evidence of footwear from preserved footprints, iconography and the morphology of skeletal material. As ever, more details and references will be added in future.
Preserved footprints of the Lower Palaeolithic such as the Laetoli footprints, in Tanzania, of 3.6 million years ago and the Happisburgh footprints, in Norfolk, of 1 million years ago are of bare feet. They are also both of ancient human species, Australopithecus afarensis and Homo antecessor respectively. What we need to find are some Neanderthal footprints to see if they wore shoes!
The skeleton of a man who died around 40,000 years ago was excavated at Tianyuan Cave near Beijing in China. The toe bones of this man were examined and the second toe was found to be weaker than those of earlier skeletons found in the area, and this was put down to the habitual wearing of shoes (Shang et al 2007, 6577). So in east Asia, the use of shoes can be dated to about 40,000 years ago, but I have not found similar studies on skeletal material from Europe.
The oldest pair of leather shoes dates to about 3500 BC from the Areni-1 caves in Armenia. This shoes, and other organic material, was preserved by desiccation. The shoe was made from a single piece of leather shaped around the wearer’s right foot. It was tied at the heel with a leather thong, and another thong passed through eyelets in the upper edge to fasten the two together. It is roughly equivalent to European size 37 (British 6.5 to 7). It was stuffed with grass, probably to keep its shape (Pinhasi et al 2010, 2). It could also have been put in to be used in place of a sock, which don’t come into use until much later. This basic design of shoe seems to be used for the next couple of thousand years in this area and in Europe.
Ötzi, of course, died with his shoes on. The man preserved in the ice of the Italian Alps dated to about 3300 BC. The right shoe survives in its entirety, whereas only the inner shoe survives from the left foot. The outer shoe was made of an oval piece of leather, similar to the one from Armenia, the inner shoe was a net made from lime bast string and grass was stuffed inside for warmth (Spindler 1993, 142-4).
Neolithic shoes made of lime bast have been found in German and Swiss lakeside settlements, preserved by waterlogging. Researcher and experimental archaeologist Anne Reichert has recreated a couple of shoes from Allensbach and Sipplingen on lake Bodensee, which partially lies on the Swiss border. These date to about 3200-2800 BC. An English version of Anne Reichert’s entire poster presentation is available here. More recently, a shoe made from a similar technique was found by a diver in Graufensee lake near Maur in Switzerland. This dates to around 3300 to 2800 BC and is from the Schifflände pile dwelling where many other organic artefacts have been found in recent excavations. According to Anne Reichert, these shoes don’t last very long.
Many leather shoes have been preserved down the salt-mines at Hallstatt and Dürrnberg in Austria from the late Bronze Age and Iron Age. They are roughly of the same design as the shoes from Armenia, with some variety.
A rich burial at Hochdorf/Enz in Germany dating to about 530 BC included many textile finds, but also gold ornaments for a pair of pointed toe boots. Sadly the leather did not survive, but the sheet gold gives a good idea of the shape of the footwear (Biel 1981).
Biel J, 1981. The late Hallstatt chieftain’s grave at Hochdorf. Antiquity 55, Issue 213, pp 16-18. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0003598X0004357X
Pinhasi R, Gasparian B, Areshian G, Zardaryan D, Smith A, Bar-Oz G & Higham T, 2010. First Direct Evidence of Chalcolithic Footwear from the Near Eastern Highlands. PLoS ONE Vol 5, No 6, pp 1-5. http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0010984
Gordon R, 2009. Ephemeral, Subfossil Mammalian, Avian and Hominid Footprints within Flandrian Sediment Exposures at Formby Point, Sefton Coast, North West England. Ichnos Vol 16, Issue 1-2, pp33-48. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/10420940802470730
Reichert, A, 2008. Bast, Rushes, Stinging Nettles: Textile Materials from the Stone Age. Unpublished poster presentation accompanying an exhibition: http://www.museum-albersdorf.de/bast/.
Scales R, 2003. Footprint-tracks at Goldcliff East: the fauna and a simple
methodology for field recording. Archaeology in the Severn Estuary 14, pp35-40.
Shang H, Tong H, Zhang S, Chen F, Trinkhaus E, 2007. An early modern human from Tianyuan Cave, Zhoukoudian, China. PNAS, Vol 104, No 16, pp 6573-6578. doi: 10.1073/pnas.0702169104
Spindler, K 1993. The Man in the Ice. London, Weidenfeld & Nicholson.