For most in modern society, it is hard to imagine even leaving the house without wearing shoes, being more than just fashion accessories as an invaluable part of our comfort. However, just when did people start wearing shoes, and did other human species such as Neanderthals wear them?
While Neanderthals may have worn furs on their feet to help them withstand the cold, it is not likely that they wore shoes with hard soles. Wearing shoes affects the skeletal structure of the foot and no skeletal evidence has been found to show that Neanderthals wore footwear resembling shoes, yet this may depend on one’s definition of a shoe.
To find out more about Neanderthal clothing and the history of footwear, read on.
What Did Neanderthals Wear?
While Neanderthals were likely better suited to the cold than modern humans due to adaptations like having a stockier build and larger nose to warm the air being inhaled, they also built fires and wore furs for clothing and used them for shelter to cope with the cold Eurasian climate.
It is difficult to answer what clothing Neanderthals wore with certainty as materials like furs are likely to not have lasted to act as a historical record. However, it is believed that Neanderthals covered around 70% to 80% of their bodies to cope with the cold, likely including their hands and feet in the way people continue to wear gloves and socks.
With the fossil records available, Neanderthal feet do not appear to have been affected by the impact of supportive footwear like in humans and a Neanderthal footprint dating back 60,000 years shows that it did not wear shoes, or at least it had worn poor-quality shoes or had done so infrequently.
How Do We Know When People Started Wearing Shoes?
When people wear shoes, it has an obvious impact on the structure of their feet, with the lesser toes (namely, the other toes apart from the big toe) becoming weaker and the arch of the feet becoming more obvious.
Fossil records show that supportive footwear became very common among humans around 30,000 years ago and before this point, people, like Neanderthals, may have worn furs on their feet for warmth or their shoes would have been of a poor quality or not worn very often.
While fossil records indicate that humans started wearing higher quality shoes with soles around 30,000 years ago, leather shoes have also been found in Armenia dating back to 3,500 BC. Evidence has also been found in Russia of fur footwear dating back to 20,000 BC, although whether this footwear was a shoe is not certain.
While many people wear shoes, they are not worn by everyone today and many societies around the world do not wear footwear. This could be due to them not needing to wear footwear to stay warm as they are in warmer climates.
For example, Abebe Bikila from Ethiopia won a gold medal at the 1960 Olympics after running without shoes, with many athletes claiming that they perform better without wearing them. This is evidence that the popularity of shoes is likely somewhat cultural and influenced by environmental necessity.
What Makes a Shoe a Shoe Anyway?
While one may assume that defining what a shoe is would be relatively simple, shoes differ enormously around the world, meaning that their definition is inevitably influenced by culture and language.
As seen in footwear around the world, from sandals to geta, it is evidently affected by culture, with shoes having not just a functional but also an expressive cultural role. Shoes may, therefore, be considered cultural objects with differing definitions of what makes a shoe a shoe.
For the sake of argument, the typical definition of a shoe according to Merriam-Webster is “an outer covering for the human foot typically having a thick or stiff sole with an attached heel and an upper part of lighter material.”
If we use this definition, neither certain types of sandals nor boots may be considered shoes, despite typically being thought of as such. The issue of defining what a shoe is then becomes rather more complex, leading to a possible debate over whether Neanderthals wore shoes.
In short, while it is very likely that Neanderthals wore footwear to help them stay warm in the European climate, whether they wore shoes or not somewhat depends on what you define as a shoe. The typical definition of shoes, however, requires there to be a hard sole for support, which Neanderthal foot records found so far suggest was not the case.