The Evolution of Footwear

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It’s possible that ancient man began wearing an early form of “shoes” as long as 40,000 years ago. Before this, humans endured the pain and perils of treading on rocky terrain without foot protection.

Although being barefoot must have limited their movements in some ways, it definitely allowed our ancestors to make a quick transition from ground walker to tree climber whenever large predators suddenly appeared.

In France and Spain, cave paintings up to 30,000 years old depict humans with footwear, possibly made from animal skin or fur. Other cave paintings dating from 16,000 to 8,000 B.C.E. show “foot bags,” presumably made of leather.

Of a more tangible nature, sandals made of sage bark have been unearthed at the Fort Rock Cave Site in Oregon. Estimates make them roughly 11,000 years old.

And the famous “Ice Man,” a 5,300-year-old mummy discovered in the Austrian Alps, was found wearing a pair of crude shoes made from hide and bark stuffed with dried moss and straw to keep his feet warm.

Most researchers believe the invention of footwear arose independently in different places at similar times. The creation of foot coverings was most likely brought about by necessity and by the different conditions of a particular area.

For example, ancient moccasins were used to allow for quicker treks on the forest floor, while crude insulated boots were fashioned to protect against the freezing snow. Clogs, on the other hand, were used as sturdy footwear in wetter areas.

From such practical uses, footwear also evolved to serve purely aesthetic purposes. The ancient Greeks and Egyptians are usually depicted on ancient urns and in hieroglyphics as donning sandals.

The Greeks in particular are well known for their traditional and sexy-looking sandals. However, the early Egyptians developed a more practical sandal, with upturned front soles to protect the wearer’s toes.

Over time, footwear reached rather absurd variations. Though more practical moccasin-type shoes were the norm at the time, 14th century courtiers used leather footwear featuring long pointed toes. Some were so long that the tips had to be attached to a string or chain to prevent the wearer from tripping over them—obviously sacrificing function for fashion.

Similarly, in the Middle Ages, the humble sandal evolved from something practical into something uncomfortable. The predecessors of modern high-heeled shoes put increased strain on the wearer’s feet. Since then, there has been a steady rise of foot-related problems.

Even though footwear protects feet from acquiring wounds and parasites, allowing longer travel and work hours, there are still benefits to be gained from walking barefoot once in a while.

For one, going shoeless allows dormant muscles in our feet and ankles to stretch. The natural terrain we thread on, like acupressure, provides a therapeutic effect.

Quite recently, a study made in countries with the highest incidence of children going barefoot yielded some interesting results. It was found that such youngsters had generally muscular feet, better posture and thicker soles.

Today, many shoe companies are beginning to apply ergonomics to footwear design. They are bringing the benefits of going shoeless to innovative shoe designs that mold to the natural contours of our feet.

Such styles enhance the sturdiness of the soles while providing maximum blood circulation. Some even employ the philosophy of reflexology and have added ridges that mimic acupressure to the inner soles.

So just like humans, footwear continues to evolve and, hopefully, for the better.

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Lex Cavemen

LEX is the scientist. He is obsessed with understanding why and how the world around him works the way it does.

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