As with many other elements from the life of prehistoric humans, little can be known about the nature of footwear at that time. Archeologists, scientists who study the physical remains of past cultures, have discovered fragments of leather shoes and foot-wrappings from a variety of different locations that give some insight into how prehistoric peoples protected their feet. The oldest known shoes are ten-thousand-year-old sandals found in a desert area of eastern Oregon; other finds include eight-thousand-year-old shoes discovered in a cave in Missouri, and fragments of shoes found in Denmark that are nearly four thousand years old. However, the existence of twenty-five-thousand-year-old clothing suggests that footwear may be older than is even presently known.
The types of shoes worn by prehistoric humans depended upon the materials available to them. In northern Europe the Ice Age, which occurred approximately 1.6 million years ago, left most of the landscape frozen, leaving people little access to natural plant fibers. Shoes were typically made from the hides of deer or sheep. It appears likely that people made their shoes shortly after killing the animal, when the hide was still soft and supple, making it easier to fit to their feet. People placed their foot on the hide and cut out a shape around their foot, then wrapped the hide up to their ankle and secured it in place with strips of hide, or thongs. In North America the presence of natural plant fibers allowed people to weave more elaborate and better fitting shoes that became the predecessor to modern sandals. Anasazi, or prehistoric American Indian, shoes from the desert southwest of present-day Arizona were woven from the fibers of the yucca plant, which were very durable.
The eight-thousand-year-old shoes discovered in Missouri were made of a plant called rattlesnake master, similar to yucca. These shoes were woven in several different styles and had to stand up to hard use, claimed University of Missouri scientist Michael O'Brien in a CNN online story. O'Brien claimed, "The earliest shoe is every bit as well-made and as complex as those from later on.… Some of these shoes you would swear were made in a [modern] Mexican market."
Whether made from leather or from plant fibers, prehistoric shoes had to stand up to heavy usage. Lacking domesticated animals like horses, prehistoric man had to hunt, travel, and do everything on foot. Though the available evidence shows no use of color or decoration on early footwear, the elaborate weaving on some shoes seems to indicate that people did care about the appearance of the shoes.
"8,000-Year-Old Shoes Prove Cave-Dwellers Were Well-Heeled." CNN.com . http://www.cnn.com/TECH/science/9807/02/prehistoric.shoes (accessed on July 24, 2003).
Hald, Margrethe. Primitive Shoes: An Archaeological-Ethnological Study Based upon Shoe Finds from the Jutland Peninsula. Copenhagen: National Museum of Denmark, 1972.