'World's oldest' shoe is found

Think of it as a kind of prehistoric Prada: Archaeologists have discovered what they say is the world's oldest known leather shoe.

Perfectly preserved under layers of sheep dung (who needs cedar closets?), the shoe, made of cowhide and tanned with oil from a plant or vegetable, is about 5,500 years old, older than Stonehenge and the Egyptian pyramids, scientists say. Leather laces crisscross through numerous leather eyelets, and it was worn on the right foot; there is no word on the left shoe.

While the shoe more closely resembles an L.L. Bean-type soft-soled walking shoe than anything by Jimmy Choo, "these were probably quite expensive shoes, made of leather, very high quality," said one of the lead scientists, Gregory Areshian, of the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology at the University of California, Los Angeles.

It could have fit a small man or a teenager, but it was most likely worn by a woman with roughly size 7 feet. (According to the website, that would be slightly roomy for Sarah Jessica Parker, whose Manolo Blahniks are size 6 1/2, and a tad tight for Sarah Palin, who, during the 2008 campaign, wore red Double Dare pumps by Naughty Monkey, size 7 1/2.)

The shoe was discovered by scientists excavating in a huge cave in Armenia, part of a treasure trove of artifacts they found that experts say provide unprecedented information about an important and sparsely documented era: the Chalcolithic period or Copper Age, when humans are believed to have invented the wheel, domesticated horses and produced other innovations.


Along with the shoe, the cave, designated Areni-1, has yielded evidence of an ancient winemaking operation and caches of what may be the oldest known intentionally dried fruits: apricots, grapes, prunes. The scientists, financed by the National Geographic Society and other institutions, also found skulls of three adolescents in ceramic vessels.

Previously, the oldest known leather shoe belonged to Oetzi the Iceman, a mummy found 19 years ago in the Alps near the Italian-Austrian border. His shoes, about 300 years younger than the Armenian shoe, had bearskin soles and deerskin panels. Footwear even older than the leather shoe includes examples found in Missouri and Oregon, made mostly from plant fibers.

The Armenian shoe discovery, published Wednesday in PLoS One, an online journal, was made when an Armenian doctoral student, Diana Zardaryan, noticed a small pit of weeds. Reaching down, she touched two sheep horns, then a broken bowl. Under that was what felt like "an ear of a cow," she said. "But when I took it out, I thought, 'Oh my God, it's a shoe.' To find a shoe has always been my dream."

Many tools found were of obsidian, whose closest source was a 60-mile trek away. (Perhaps why they needed shoes, Areshian suggested.)

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