Talk about vintage footwear—an international team of archaeologists has discovered the world’s oldest leather shoe. One thousand years older than the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt, the 5,500-year-old shoe was perfectly preserved by the cool, dry conditions in the sheep dung–lined cave in Armenia where it was found.
"We thought initially that the shoe and other objects were about 600 to 700 years old because they were in such good condition," Ron Pinhasi said in a prepared statement. He is the lead author on a paper describing the relic, published June 9 in PLoS One. It was only when two tiny strips of leather and some straw from inside the shoe were carbon-dated by independent labs in California and Oxford, England, that the team realized how old the shoe really was—a few hundred years older than those worn by Ötzi, the Iceman.
The team had been excavating the Armenian cave for a year when Diana Zardaryan, a PhD student at the Institute of Archaeology and Enthography in Armenia, spotted the shoe in a pit alongside a broken pot and some sheep horns. "I was amazed to find that even the shoe-laces were preserved," she recalled, in a prepared statement.
The lace-up bootie is remarkably similar to "pampooties," moccasins worn on the Aran Islands (off the west coast of Ireland) up to the 1950s. "In fact, enormous similarities exist between the manufacturing technique and style of this 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 in a prepared statement.
The team was unable to isolate ancient DNA to determine the origin of the leather, but microscopic analysis of the hide’s pores suggests the size-seven shoe was probably made from a cow. Its maker used a vegetable oil-based product to tan the leather, Pinhasi said.
While Ötzi wore the oldest known leather shoes prior to this discovery (his were grassy socks held together with straps of bear and deer leather), 7,420-year-old sandals made from plant material were previously found in the Arnold Research Cave in Missouri. The newly discovered lace-up moccasin is thought to narrowly pre-date the first known slip-on shoe, which is 4,680 radiocarbon years old.
Also preserved in the cool, dry cave, were containers of barley and apricots. "This cave has been exciting form the beginning," said Pinhasi. "We keep finding these exciting objects. It’s a privilege to have a cave with such amazing preservation."
Photo of the perfectly preserved shoe that was discovered in a cave in Armenia courtesy of Boris Gasparian from the Institute of Archaeology and Enthography, a division of the National Academy of Sciences in the Republic of Armenia