When Did Humans Start Wearing Shoes: A Second Look

I originally blogged about this story in August of 2005 and reposted the story (twice actually) in May of 2006. Trinkaus has recently returned to the subject and analyzed some skeletal material from Sunghir and Tianyuan. I have tracked down both articles on the subject and will have more to say as soon as I have finished reading them…

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6 Responses

  1. Looking again at what you wrote about the previous paper, all sorts of questions come to mind.
    First, there are all sorts of native populations that still go barefoot today. Why didn’t he perform the same examination on them?
    Next, he doesn’t seem to address the issue that a lot of people would have gone barefooted most of the time (spring, summer, fall) and only wear footwear during the winter. For instance, early descriptions of the Midwest(early 1800s) say that most people went barefoot from day-to-day, only wearing shoes to “go-to-meeting” or to travel long distances (hence, the Abraham Lincoln stories). Ditto for Native Americans. The French described the Hurons as wearing snowshoes in the winter, and then resuming going barefoot in the spring (those sources also mention moccasins being used only when hunting–this applies all along the east coast).
    Trinkaus’ latest data is from northern China. I would certainly expect some sort of footwear to be worn during the winters there. While humans can probably survive colder temperatures than today’s “softies”, in sub-freezing weather, extremities need to be wrapped in some fashion.
    Another issue that should be considered is that the elite might wear shoes when the normal folks do not. For instance, in the Aztecs, Montezuma wore shoes while lesser nobles were prohibited from doing so in his presence. Everyday Aztecs didn’t wear shoes at all.
    There is also the question of whether the type of shoe made any difference in the bone indications. Many cultures regularly wore sandals, which don’t restrict the toes much (although it’s not clear what that would do to the lesser toes). What about moccasins? In the sorts that the Native Indians wore, there was no hard sole at all, and toes can reach through the soft sole to do the sort of grasping that would enhance bone/muscle strength.
    Finally, until recently, most kids went barefoot through much of their growing years. One would think that this would put on bone in a way different from the way it occurs with today with Niked feet. However, wearing shoes when older would almost certainly cause atrophy, but how much? And is it distinguishable from looking at the bones. (But that also suggests that the age at death of the bones is also a vitally important factor to keep in mind when trying to analyze these things.)
    I realize that in many respects Trinkaus is just getting started in this sort of research, and that his interest is in the old bones. It just seems to me that he hasn’t yet established a strong baseline on the range of toe forms under different conditions. And while the old-bone data is fairly rare, the data for the baseline ought to be fairly easy to collect.

  2. Looking again at what you wrote about the previous paper, all sorts of questions come to mind.
    First, there are all sorts of native populations that still go barefoot today. Why didn’t he perform the same examination on them?
    Next, he doesn’t seem to address the issue that a lot of people would have gone barefooted most of the time (spring, summer, fall) and only wear footwear during the winter. For instance, early descriptions of the Midwest(early 1800s) say that most people went barefoot from day-to-day, only wearing shoes to “go-to-meeting” or to travel long distances (hence, the Abraham Lincoln stories). Ditto for Native Americans. The French described the Hurons as wearing snowshoes in the winter, and then resuming going barefoot in the spring (those sources also mention moccasins being used only when hunting–this applies all along the east coast).
    Trinkaus’ latest data is from northern China. I would certainly expect some sort of footwear to be worn during the winters there. While humans can probably survive colder temperatures than today’s “softies”, in sub-freezing weather, extremities need to be wrapped in some fashion.
    Another issue that should be considered is that the elite might wear shoes when the normal folks do not. For instance, in the Aztecs, Montezuma wore shoes while lesser nobles were prohibited from doing so in his presence. Everyday Aztecs didn’t wear shoes at all.
    There is also the question of whether the type of shoe made any difference in the bone indications. Many cultures regularly wore sandals, which don’t restrict the toes much (although it’s not clear what that would do to the lesser toes). What about moccasins? In the sorts that the Native Indians wore, there was no hard sole at all, and toes can reach through the soft sole to do the sort of grasping that would enhance bone/muscle strength.
    Finally, until recently, most kids went barefoot through much of their growing years. One would think that this would put on bone in a way different from the way it occurs with today with Niked feet. However, wearing shoes when older would almost certainly cause atrophy, but how much? And is it distinguishable from looking at the bones. (But that also suggests that the age at death of the bones is also a vitally important factor to keep in mind when trying to analyze these things.)
    I realize that in many respects Trinkaus is just getting started in this sort of research, and that his interest is in the old bones. It just seems to me that he hasn’t yet established a strong baseline on the range of toe forms under different conditions. And while the old-bone data is fairly rare, the data for the baseline ought to be fairly easy to collect.

  3. I take back what I said about the baseline. He had three sets of controls: Trinkaus looked at the fossils of relatively recent Pueblo Indians, who were habitually barefoot, at relatively recent Inuit, who have always worn sealskin boots (though that isn’t quite true, either, since they went barefoot on the various Aleutian Islands like Kodiak and Attu), and a 20th century cadaver sample (European-Americans).
    What I find odd is that his really old fossils fall at the lower end of the European-American sample/data, suggesting continuous, hard-soled shoe use. I just don’t see how moccasin-like footwear could do that (note that he has no sample of a moccasin-wearing population; while Inuit boots are soft-soled, they are very thick), He notes that there was a lot of beadwork found around the ankles of the Sunghir group, though, which does suggest moccasins, not sandals (in my mind, at least).
    As I mentioned before, the peasantry often goes barefoot (heck, you can even find mention of is in Russia, pre-revolution) whenever possible, so it really makes me wonder if the burials he is getting his toe bones from might not be an aristocracy of some sort.
    It’s all very interesting stuff–I just don’t know what it means (and I’m not sure anybody else really does, either).

  4. I take back what I said about the baseline. He had three sets of controls: Trinkaus looked at the fossils of relatively recent Pueblo Indians, who were habitually barefoot, at relatively recent Inuit, who have always worn sealskin boots (though that isn’t quite true, either, since they went barefoot on the various Aleutian Islands like Kodiak and Attu), and a 20th century cadaver sample (European-Americans).
    What I find odd is that his really old fossils fall at the lower end of the European-American sample/data, suggesting continuous, hard-soled shoe use. I just don’t see how moccasin-like footwear could do that (note that he has no sample of a moccasin-wearing population; while Inuit boots are soft-soled, they are very thick), He notes that there was a lot of beadwork found around the ankles of the Sunghir group, though, which does suggest moccasins, not sandals (in my mind, at least).
    As I mentioned before, the peasantry often goes barefoot (heck, you can even find mention of is in Russia, pre-revolution) whenever possible, so it really makes me wonder if the burials he is getting his toe bones from might not be an aristocracy of some sort.
    It’s all very interesting stuff–I just don’t know what it means (and I’m not sure anybody else really does, either).

  5. Afarensis,
    This is a really fun topic. Can you send me an e-mail when you write the follow up posts. I would love to put it up at The Issue. (www.TheIssue.com)
    Cheers,
    JB

  6. As I understand it, the significance of the reduced musculature on the toe bones of H. sapiens from China examined by Trinkaus is that they indicate some form of protective footwear — as opposed to probable lack of the same by Neanderthals in particular. On the face of it, this is somewhat surprising since the Neanderthals lived in very cold places in Eurasia. But their toe bones, even their smallest toes, were extremely robust, which suggests that they went barefoot even in the coldest winters. They must have been extremely hardy people! Considering how very early these first shoe- or boot-wearers were, it is quite unlikely that they represent an elite like the ruler of the Aztec. There may not even have been anything like chiefs or tribes back that far. The evidence suggests fairly egalitarian, relatively small bands and parallels with modern foragers would indicate “Big Men” as leaders without official roles or hereditary status.

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