Eight Millennia of Footwear Fashion

From the bear-fur shoes that once graced the feet of Japanese samurai to the sleek platform sandals that strut down runways today, people have long garbed the humblest part of the human body--our feet--in high fashion. Now ancient sandals and slip-ons from a Missouri cave reveal that attention to fashion in footwear goes back 8000 years or more, according to a report in tomorrow's Science.

The shoes were unearthed in the 1950s, but no one suspected their age until Jenna Kuttruff, an archaeological textile expert at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, was called in. She and her colleagues carbon-dated fibers of seven of the most diverse shoes by accelerator mass spectrometry, an especially sensitive dating technique. They found that the shoes range in age from 1070 to as much as 8325 years old, the latter being among the oldest in North America. The sling-back and slip-on styles look contemporary enough to be sported on modern city streets.

"The complexity in design means that we had artists and craftspeople even then," says Kathryn Jakes, a fiber specialist at Ohio State University in Columbus. Adds James Petersen, an archaeologist at the University of Vermont in Burlington: "One would not have guessed this of prehistoric native North America 8300 years ago," as social distinctions in personal effects such as jewelry don't generally appear until 4000 to 5000 years ago.

Whether the distinctive footwear styles were created for different seasons or simply for fashion is far from clear. But if a larger sample of the styles could be found and dated, they could prove a real boon to research, says Tom Dillehay, an archaeologist at the University of Kentucky in Lexington. The cache of footwear also offers an unusually personal glimpse of early Americans. Some sandals were trodden to holes and frugally repaired before being lost, while a child's leather moccasin was apparently kicked off almost new. It "makes you think about some person in prehistoric times wearing those sandals," says Jakes. "Looking at the sandals, [you know] that someone used them."