What You Can Learn From Bones: When Did We Start Wearing Shoes?

ResearchBlogging.orgBioarchaeologists and paleoanthropologists draw on a wide variety of methods in order to analyze bone. The exact technique depends upon the problem being addressed. One technique, associated mainly with Christopher Ruff, that has been around since the late 1970’s involves the use of beam model analysis. In beam model analysis cross sections of bone, perpendicular to the long axis, are taken and the distribution of bone is analyzed. Based on the measures derived from the analysis the mechanical properties of the bone can be determined, and this in turn can be related to locomotion, changes in subsistence strategy, sexual dimorphism, and various temporal trends (among other things). This post is concerned with the analysis of temporal trends, in particular, with the effects of shoe wearing on pedal morphology.


At first glance the idea of learning when humans first began to wear shoes might seem a bit silly. That was my first thought on hearing about the question. The question was raised by Erik Trinkaus in a 2005 article in the Journal of Archaeological Science. In 2008 Trinkaus and coauthor Hong Shang returned to the subject in another Journal of Archaeological Science article. So, how do we tell when humans first began to wear shoes. In order to be able to answer the question we have to be able to detect morphological differences between people (or peoples) who wear shoes and those who don’t.
In order to do that, Trinkaus examined the pedal phalanges of three different populations. The first was a late prehistoric population from Pecos Pueblo (excavated by A.V. Kidder). The Pecos Pueblo population, as far as we know, went barefoot. The second population comes from Ipiutak and Tigara (prehistoric also). This population wore antelope moccasins stiffened with sealskin. The third population is a late 20th century Euroamerican population from the Maxwell Museum. The articular length, dorsoplantar, and mediolateral diameters at mid shaft of the proximal pedal phalanges (I should note that because of the difficulty in determining phalanges 2-4 these measurements were pooled) were measured. In beam model analysis weight bearing diaphyses are generally scaled to body mass, so various measures of body mass were taken as well. I’m not going to go into the mechanics of the analysis, or the statistics, suffice to say, there were detectable differences in the first phalange, the pooled 2-4, and the fifth phalange amongst the populations. The Pecos Pueblo sample was the most robust with the Ipiutak/Tigara and Euroamerican populations being more gracile (with the Ipiutak/Tigara being somewhat more robust than the Euroamerican). Theoretically, it should be possible to apply the same procedure to fossil samples and bracket the time when pedal phalanges start becoming more gracile – and hence, when shoes start being worn. Trinkaus applied the same type of analysis to three Middle and Upper Paleolithic samples. The first group included Neanderthals from La-Chapelle, La Ferrasie, Kuk-Koba, Regourdou, Shanidar, Spy and Tabun. The second group included specimens from Qafzeh and Skhul. The third group included specimens from Barma Grande, Caviglione, Cro-Magnon, Dolni´ Vestonice I & II, Ohalo II, Paglicci, Pataud, Pr?edmosti´ and Veneri. Results of the analysis show a general trend of decreasing robusticity of the pedal phalanges from the Neanderthal group through the Qafzeh/Skhul group to the Barma Grande, etc., group. In his discussion of the analysis Trinkaus comes to the following conclusion:

It therefore appears probable that there was a significant increase in the use of footwear between Middle Paleolithic humans (both late archaic and early modern) and middle Upper Paleolithic early modern humans. Middle Paleolithic humans may well have had forms of foot gear, to provide insulation during cold weather and possibly mechanical protection from the substrate. However, the robusticity of their lateral toes suggests that such foot protection was worn irregularly and/or provided little mechanical separation between the foot and the ground. By the middle Upper Paleolithic, the anatomical evidence presented here, along with limited
archeological evidence of foot covering, suggests that people were routinely using semi-rigid to rigid soled shoes, boots or sandals to protect the foot. They may have gone barefoot frequently, as the footprints in caves attest, but their toes indicate that they had footwear available as needed for stressful locomotion. The rare archeological suggestions of such footwear, as at Sunghir and Pavlov, were therefore part of a much more widespread phenomenon.

This brings us to the paper by Trinkaus and Shang. In this paper Trinkaus repeat the analysis from the first paper, the big difference being the addition of material from Sunghir and Tianyuan. The skeletal material from this latter site is dated by AMS to 42-39 ka cal BP. Both exhibit relatively gracile pedal phalanges similar to the Euroamerican sample. Trinkaus and Shang draw a somewhat cautious conclusion. The problem is that other early modern humans from this time range lack pedal phalanges, consequently, the most that can be argued is that at least one individual was wearing rigid soled shoes at the time.
I have to confess that, back in 2005, when I first heard about this research I thought it was kind of silly. Having read both papers I think Trinkaus is actually on to something.
Trinkaus, E. (2005). Anatomical evidence for the antiquity of human footwear use. Journal of Archaeological Science , 32(10), 1515-1526. DOI: doi:10.1016/j.jas.2005.04.006
Trinkaus, E., Shang, H.Anatomical evidence for the antiquity of human footwear: Tianyuan and Sunghir. Journal of Archaeological Science DOI: doi:10.1016/j.jas.2007.12.002

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13 Responses

  1. I agree it’s interesting, but (of course) correlation is not causation, and a “general trend” of change in foot shape is surely not what one would expect from the (relatively) sudden introduction of a new technology: there should be a change in the evolution of the foot at the time when shoes are introduced.
    Did shoe use evolve once, or several times? I’m wondering if it it possible to create replicates?
    Oh, and off topic, but cool banner!
    Bob

  2. I agree it’s interesting, but (of course) correlation is not causation, and a “general trend” of change in foot shape is surely not what one would expect from the (relatively) sudden introduction of a new technology: there should be a change in the evolution of the foot at the time when shoes are introduced.
    Did shoe use evolve once, or several times? I’m wondering if it it possible to create replicates?
    Oh, and off topic, but cool banner!
    Bob

  3. I agree it’s interesting, but (of course) correlation is not causation, and a “general trend” of change in foot shape is surely not what one would expect from the (relatively) sudden introduction of a new technology: there should be a change in the evolution of the foot at the time when shoes are introduced.
    Did shoe use evolve once, or several times? I’m wondering if it it possible to create replicates?
    Oh, and off topic, but cool banner!
    Bob

  4. I agree that 1) It’s a cool banner (I have two new ones, both cool) and 2) correlation is not causation. I don’t think shoes were necessarily a sudden invention. Compare modern shoes with the moccasins worn by the Ipiutak. Although they had sealskin soles and were more rigid than the moccasins worn by say the Huron they were not as rigid as modern shoes. As Ahcuah points out in this comment even groups that had moccasins did not wear them all the time. Trinkaus makes a similar observation. Bear in mind, also, that this does not reflect a genetic change, rather it is a response of bone to changes in biomechanical loading. That being the case, if you had lived your entire life without shoes I would expect to see some robust phalanges fully comparable to those found amongst the Pecos Pueblo population or the Neanderthals.

  5. There is also the matter of children. I would think that it is very probable that shoes were not worn by children at all until they grew into young adults and participated in long hunts or forages over rough terrain. Consequently, you would expect some mixed evidence. I know my kids hated to wear shoes.

  6. Controls for genetic differences in foot structure between the studied populations?

  7. Controls for genetic differences in foot structure between the studied populations?

  8. It’s somewhat difficult to control for genetic differences in foot structure between populations that no longer exist. If one were to look at anatomically modern human variation in these particular bones, however, the data fit. Furthermore, when bringing into the picture the Neanderthal, a much more musculoskeletally robust species than sapiens, the trend is what would be expected.
    It is important to remember, as afarensis pointed out, the foot does not need to “evolve” or react to the introduction of shoes in a genetic manner. Bones are living tissue, and they respond to loading (a war of the forces, if you will). As a reaction to or result of biomechanical stress one can see general trends in bone morphology (e.g., trabecular bone patterning with force direction, humeral neck angle in relation to long-term stress, etc…), and this is what Trinkaus et al. are doing here.
    Asking the question of when humans began to wear shoes may be a silly one – actually, it is a silly one. What is much more interesting here, at least to me, is the ways in which bone is able to react to environmental/physical stresses.

  9. It’s somewhat difficult to control for genetic differences in foot structure between populations that no longer exist. If one were to look at anatomically modern human variation in these particular bones, however, the data fit. Furthermore, when bringing into the picture the Neanderthal, a much more musculoskeletally robust species than sapiens, the trend is what would be expected.
    It is important to remember, as afarensis pointed out, the foot does not need to “evolve” or react to the introduction of shoes in a genetic manner. Bones are living tissue, and they respond to loading (a war of the forces, if you will). As a reaction to or result of biomechanical stress one can see general trends in bone morphology (e.g., trabecular bone patterning with force direction, humeral neck angle in relation to long-term stress, etc…), and this is what Trinkaus et al. are doing here.
    Asking the question of when humans began to wear shoes may be a silly one – actually, it is a silly one. What is much more interesting here, at least to me, is the ways in which bone is able to react to environmental/physical stresses.

  10. Why is it a silly question? I think it is a very good question. We probably have much less evidence of when we started wearing clothes. One could ASSume that the time when we started wearing significantly leathered shoes was somewhat later than the time we started wearing clothes. So it may help to date some of those “soft” things that won’t ever show up in the fossil record.

  11. Why is it a silly question? I think it is a very good question. We probably have much less evidence of when we started wearing clothes. One could ASSume that the time when we started wearing significantly leathered shoes was somewhat later than the time we started wearing clothes. So it may help to date some of those “soft” things that won’t ever show up in the fossil record.

  12. Why is it a silly question? I think it is a very good question. We probably have much less evidence of when we started wearing clothes. One could ASSume that the time when we started wearing significantly leathered shoes was somewhat later than the time we started wearing clothes. So it may help to date some of those “soft” things that won’t ever show up in the fossil record.

  13. There was some research that came out last year (at least, in the mainstream media–I read it in the NY Times) that looked at the genetics of lice (head, body, and pubic) to infer when close-fitting clothing was first worn. Their verdict–about 103,000 years ago.
    Here’s the link: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/03/08/science/08louse.html?scp=3&sq=body+lice&st=nyt

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