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How old are the oldest pair of shoes in your closet? One year old? Five years old? Imagine what a pair of shoes from more than 6,000 years ago looks like!

Well, thanks to a discovery in the 1800s and the use of modern technology, we don’t have to imagine. Twenty-two pairs of sandals, along with baskets and other tools, were discovered in 1857 in a cave in southern Spain. Ten years later, a Spanish archaeologist returned to the cave to gather the remaining artifacts and give them to museums in Spain.

A team of researchers recently published a paper after studying 76 of those objects. By studying the raw materials the objects are made of, mostly reed and grass, the researchers were able to date the items. Scientists found the objects are between 6,200 to 9,500 years old, putting them in the early to middle Holocene period. According to the scientists, these are the oldest woven grass footwear ever discovered in Europe.

There were two types of footwear discovered at the site. Some showed signs of wear while others appeared unworn. Grasses and natural fibers tend not to survive for long periods of time, meaning scientists don’t often get the opportunity to study these types of finds.

So how did these items survive for us to study today? The cave had low humidity and cool winds inside, creating an ideal climate for preserving the PERISHABLE materials.

In addition to the sandals, the researchers also studied baskets and wooden artifacts found at the same time. They say that these items suggest the people who made these items had a thorough knowledge of the environment around them.

“The quality and technological complexity of the basketry makes us question the simplistic assumptions we have about human communities prior to the arrival of agriculture in southern Europe,” said Francisco Martínez Sevilla in a statement. Martínez Sevilla is one of the study’s authors and a researcher in the Prehistory Department at the University of Alcalá. The study also included researchers at the Autonomous University of Barcelona.

November 2023