Prehistoric American shoes are discovered in Missouri Oldest known footwear to be found east of Rockies

July 04, 1998|By DALLAS MORNING NEWS

The collection ranges from strappy leather sandals with ankle ties to more casual slip-ons, but these shoes wouldn't measure up on the runways of Milan -- they're several thousand years out of date.

A group of scientists has dated an assortment of prehistoric American shoes that span roughly 7,500 years. They describe the dates for seven of the shoes, saying the oldest shoe was made before 6100 B.C.

Archaeologists dug the ancient footwear samples, 18 specimens all, out of Arnold Research Cave in the Missouri River bluffs of central Missouri. The cave shows evidence of human occupants starting about 11,000 years ago.

Although most of the samples were collected in the 1950s, improvements in carbon-dating techniques have allowed the researchers -- Jenna Kuttruff and Gail DeHart of Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge and Michael O'Brien of the University of Missouri, Columbia -- to assign dates to seven of the shoes.

The craft of shoe-making was sophisticated throughout the several-thousand-year period, the scientists said.

"They're very complex from the earliest date to the end," notes O'Brien. "The earliest one doesn't look junky-crude."

Most of the shoes were made of fiber, much of which came from a wildflower commonly known as rattlesnake master, a species that still grows on Midwestern prairies. Some of the shoes have the remains of grass padding in the soles -- apparently prehistoric feet got sore, too.

The fashions vary: Some shoes have pointed toes while others are rounded, and a few have decorative flourishes.

The shoes, especially the more recent ones, were built much as they are today, with support for the heel and toes connected by a softer sole.

And like their modern-day descendants, prehistoric Midwesterners wore their shoes until they fell apart.

"The shoes in our collection are worn out in the same places as today's shoes: on the heels and the balls of the feet," O'Brien said. "And many of them have been repaired."

The cave that produced the footwear remained so dry that the oldest shoes were as well preserved as ones made 7,500 years later, around 1000, the researchers reported.

A technique known as AMS radiocarbon dating, used to date the shroud of Turin in Italy, allowed the scientists to work with very tiny samples.

For the dating process, the team selected six shoes from the collection that represented different types of construction. O'Brien said they were in somewhat poor condition. The dates make the footwear samples the oldest known east of the Rocky Mountains, said O'Brien.

Pub Date: 7/04/98

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