The history of shoes--that is to say, archaeological and paleoanthropological evidence for the earliest use of protective coverings for the human foot--appears to start during the Middle Paleolithic period of approximately 40,000 years ago.
The Oldest Shoes
The oldest shoes recovered to date are sandals found at several Archaic (~6500-9000 years bp) and a few Paleoindian (~9000-12,000 years bp) sites in the American southwest. Dozens of Archaic period sandals were recovered by Luther Cressman at the Fort Rock site in Oregon, direct-dated ~7500 BP. Fort Rock-style sandals have also been found at sites dated 10,500-9200 cal BP at Cougar Mountain and Catlow Caves.
Others include the Chevelon Canyon sandal, direct-dated to 8,300 years ago, and some cordage fragments at the Daisy Cave site in California (8,600 years bp).
In Europe, preservation has not been as fortuitous. Within the Upper Paleolithic layers of the cave site of Grotte de Fontanet in France, a footprint apparently shows that the foot had a moccasin-like covering on it. Skeletal remains from the Sunghir Upper Paleolithic sites in Russia (ca 27,500 years bp) appear to have had foot protection. That's based on the recovery of ivory beads found near the ankle and foot of a burial.
A complete shoe was discovered at the Areni-1 Cave in Armenia, and reported in 2010. It was a moccasin-type shoe, lacking a vamp or sole, and it has been dated to ~5500 years BP.
- Read more about the 5500 Year Old Shoe
Evidence for Shoe Use in Prehistory
Earlier evidence for shoe use is based on anatomical changes that may have been created by wearing shoes. Erik Trinkaus has argued that wearing footwear produces physical changes in the toes, and this change is reflected in human feet beginning in the Middle Paleolithic period. Basically, Trinkaus argues that narrow, gracile middle proximal phalanges (toes) compared with fairly robust lower limbs implies "localized mechanical insulation from ground reaction forces during heel-off and toe-off."
The earliest evidence of this toe morphology noted to date is at the Tianyuan 1 cave site in Fangshan County, China, about 40,000 years ago.
Historians have noted that shoes seem to have a special significance in some, perhaps many cultures. For example, in 17th and 18th century England, old, worn-out shoes were concealed in the rafters and chimneys of homes. Researchers such as Houlbrook suggest that although the precise nature of the practice is unknown, a concealed shoe may share some properties with other hidden examples of ritual recycling such as secondary burials, or may be a symbol of protection of the home against evil spirits. The time-depth of some particular significance of shoes appears to date from at least the Chalcolithic period: Tell Brak's Eye-Temple in Syria included a limestone votive shoe. Houlbrook's article is a good starting point for people investigating this curious issue.
For information on later shoe history, you can't do better than the History of Shoes, from About.com's Guide to Inventors, Mary Bellis.
See the page on Fort Rock sandals from the University of Oregon for a detailed description of the shoes and a bibliography of site reports.
Geib, Phil R. 2000 Sandal types and Archaic prehistory on the Colorado plateau. American Antiquity 65(3):509-524.
Houlbrook C. 2013. Ritual, Recycling and Recontextualization: Putting the Concealed Shoe into Context. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 23(01):99-112.
Pinhasi R, Gasparian B, Areshian G, Zardaryan D, Smith A, Bar-Oz G, and Higham T. 2010. First Direct Evidence of Chalcolithic Footwear from the Near Eastern Highlands. PLoS ONE 5(6):e10984. Free to download
Trinkaus, Erik 2005 Anatomical evidence for the antiquity of human footwear use. Journal of Archaeological Science 32(10):1515-1526.
Trinkaus, Erik and Hong Shang 2008 Anatomical evidence for the antiquity of human footwear: Tianyuan and Sunghir. Journal of Archaeological Science 35(7):1928-1933.
This glossary entry is part of the Dictionary of Archaeology.