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Addendum: The first version of this post suggested neanderthals wore shoes. This is not the case.

Humans have more physical adaptations than we give them credit for. Although we often think of ourselves as reliant upon technology and rather pedestrian compared to the rest of the animal kingdom, the fact remains we can still run for longer than most Savannah species.

Similarly, our appendages are rather well suited to surprisingly harsh conditions. Our hands and feet are adapted to the cold and won’t drop off as soon as the temperature drops, even if they aren’t covered by gloves or shoes.

Yet at some point in our prehistory, in northern latitudes at least, we would’ve had to have started wearing shoes. The climate in Europe and other such non-African environments frequently gets too difficult for our naturally adapted feet to deal with.

Bizarrely we still want to live in such conditions

So we naturally become curious as to when was the first footwear. But, like with most things in evolutionary anthropology, it isn’t an especially easy question to answer as footwear is typically made of materials that don’t preserve well.

Whilst it would be great if our ancestors wore rocks on their feet, forever recording our shod history, it turns out they didn’t. They went for practicality rather than preservality.

Some shoes did preserve however, and North American sites contain sandals dating to a maximum of 9,000 BP (~7,000 BC). Beads, seeming to be sewn into a shoe’s design, have been found in France and push the date for footwear back even further to ~24,000 BP .

The individual with beads on his shoe (from Sunghir, Russia).

And at the other extreme we have a neanderthal footprint, dating to >60,000 years ago, that was distinctly unshod. Which means shoes developed sometime between 24,000 years ago and an indeterminate point in the distant past.

Useful, no?

Fortunately evolutionary anthropology has come along and done what it does best: telling decay to (NSFW link) get out the way and go stand in the corner whilst we work.

It was noted that a shoe distributes the forces the little toes are exposed to more evenly across the ball of the foot meaning that the little toes of an often shod individual would be less robust than one who is frequently barefoot.

Also, the constricting nature of a shoe would also make the arch of the foot higher by compressing the sides. Such a change in pedal arch shape would decrease the forces the big toe is exposed to. Further, the sole of the shoe gives the big toe something more stable to push off decreasing the twisting forces it is exposed too.

Your foot is a chunky monkey (and ironically chunkier than a monkey's)

All of these changes to forces would have a noticeable impact on the skeleton of an individual, as comparative studies of modern shod and unshod people confirmed. The little toes would be less robust, the big toe more so etc. in a shod individual.

So all that was left was to look into the archaeological record and look at the foot bones of individuals past. Which was promptly done.

The results indicate that footwear had become pretty much universal by the middle Upper Palaeolithic, ~30,000 years ago. The evidence did extend back as far as the Middle Palaeolithic (400-40 kya) but the data for these earlier samples was weaker.

This might indicate our ancestors were wearing foot-coverings for warmth prior to this, but a proper shoe sole didn’t become commonplace until the Upper Palaeolithic. At the very least it suggests footwear was worn infrequently and/or was of poor quality.

Curiously, the results are pretty much the same for both the human and neanderthal lineages, however once you took into account neanderthals’ different stature it became apparent they did not wear hard soled shoes.

There still retains the possibility they covered their feet in skins or something else to keep the warm but this data does indicate that if they did so the shoes did not have hard soles.

Trinkaus, E. (2005). Anatomical evidence for the antiquity of human footwear use Journal of Archaeological Science, 32 (10), 1515-1526 DOI: 10.1016/j.jas.2005.04.006

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2012 and all that · 3rd April 2012 at 6:56 pm

Very fascinating, thanks for this!

eyeonicr · 5th April 2012 at 5:25 am

So what is there that was developed by H. sapiens while Neanderthals were still around that the latter did not also have? Anything?

    Adam Benton · 5th April 2012 at 10:41 am

    Every time someone claims there is a difference it is later found to not be the case. Fire, vegetable consumption…all have been suggested to be something humans did but neanderthals didn’t, all have since been proved neanderthals did too.

    The only real differences seem to be matters of degree. We both had a relativley advanced toolkit, we just developed it before they did. We both had symbolic material culture, we just produced more of it than they did. But since this is just a sliding scale it would only take a couple of finds to overturn this.

    I don’t think they did much throwing though. Their injuries (and tools) suggest they got right up close to their prey and jabbed them. Humans seem to have preferred to hunt from further away.

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