June 10, 2010

World’s Oldest Leather Shoe Unearthed In Armenia

Researchers say they have found the world's oldest leather shoe in the mountains of Armenia, dating back 5,500 years ago.

The researchers reported Wednesday in PLoS One, a journal of Public Library of Science, that the well-preserved footwear was made of a single piece of leather, laced up the front and back.

The right-footed shoe was found in a cave along with other evidence of human occupation.  The shoe had been stuffed with grass, which dated to the same time as the leather of the shoe - between 5,637 and 5,387 years ago.

"This is great luck," enthused archaeologist Ron Pinhasi of University College Cork in Cork, Ireland, who led the research team.

"We normally only find broken pots, but we have very little information about the day-to-day activity" of these ancient people. "What did they eat? What did they do? What did they wear? This is a chance to see this ... it gives us a real glimpse into society," he said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press.

The oldest leather shoe was previously thought to be the one discovered on the famous Otzi, the "iceman" found frozen in the Alps a few years ago.  Otzi has been dated to 5,375 and 5,128 years ago, a few hundred years more recent than the American shoe.

Otzi's shoes were made of deer and bear leather held together by a leather strap.  Pinhasi said the shoe appears to be made of cowhide.

Older sandals have been found in a cave in Missouri, but those were made of fiber rather than leather.

The new discovery was found in a pit, along with a broken pot and some wild goat horns.

However, Pinhasi does not think it was thrown away.  There was discarded material that had been tossed outside the cave, while this pit was inside in the living area. 

According to the researchers, it is still not clear why the grass filled the shoe, whether it was for intended as a lining or insulation, or to help maintain the shape of the shoe when stored.

Pinhasi said the Armenian shoe was small by current standards, but might have fit am man in that era.

He described the shoe as a single piece of leather cut to fit the foot.  A lace passing through four sets of eyelets closed the back of the shoe.  Fifteen pairs of eyelets were used to lace from toe to top in the front.

There was no reinforcement in the sole, but just a layer of soft leather instead.  "I don't know how long it would last in rocky terrain," Pinhasi said.

Pinhasi said the shoe is similar to a type of footwear common in the Aran Islands, west of Ireland, up until the 1950s.  He said the Irish version of the shoe did not last long.

"In fact, enormous similarities exist between the manufacturing technique and style of this (Armenian) shoe and those found across Europe at later periods, suggesting that this type of shoe was worn for thousands of years across a large and environmentally diverse region," Pinhasi said.

Pinhasi said that while the Armenian shoe was soft when unearthed, the leather has begun to harden now that it is exposed to air.

The shoe is currently being held at the Institute of Archaeology in Yerevan, but Pinhasi hopes it will be sent to laboratories in either Switzerland or Germany to be treated for preservation and then returned to Armenia for display.

Meanwhile, Pinhasi is heading back to Armenia this week in hopes of finding the other shoe.

The National Geographic Society funded the research, along with the Gfoeller Foundation, the Steinmetz Family Foundation, the Boochever Foundation and the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology at UCLA.


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