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Sagebrush bark fiber, Fort Rock Cave, Oregon, 8500 B.C.

Photograph by Mitchell Feinberg
By Cathy Newman

Ease your hand gently along the insole of the sagebrush bark fiber sandal in the University of Oregon Museum of Natural and Cultural History, and you can feel the imprint of a big toe in what may be the world's oldest existing example of footwear. The sandal, found in Fort Rock Cave in central Oregon in 1938, may be 10,500 years old, and was worn by a native North American who lived in caves during the winter months and hunted in marshes in summer.

"These are the traces of human lives," says Tom Connolly, the museum's research director. "The worn heel pockets on the sandals; the charred pinpricks on the toe flaps allow you to put yourself at a fireside. There's the sense you get from an assemblage of sandals here, those big and worn, small and child-size, those caked in mud, that allows you to see them as products of real human families: mom, kids, dad, grandparents."

Though humans may have wrapped their feet in skins earlier, Erik Trinkaus, an anthropologist at Washington University in St. Louis, says sturdy shoes originated between 40,000 and 26,000 years ago. Trinkaus studied the foot bones of Neandertals living 100,000 to 40,000 years ago, compared them with the more delicate foot bones of our ancestors living 26,000 years ago, and concludes that shoe wearers developed weaker toes because of the reduced stress and increased support footwear allows. From there, shoes evolved like stone tools and art, with other advances in human culture.

Jenna Tedrick Kuttruff, a textile expert at Louisiana State University, points out that of the group of fiber sandals (some as old as 8,000 years) found in a Missouri cave she has examined, no two are alike. "The wearers of these shoes lived a subsistence existence," she says. "They didn't need to make each pair different. But it's human nature to make things visually appealing, to make one pair a little more complex than others to set it apart from someone else's." The desire to wear something different, distinctive, and decorative—that is to say, the instinct for fashion—has been around for a very long time.

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