In 2008, a team of archeologists from the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography of the National Academy of Sciences of Armenia discovered a pair of leather closed toed shoes in southern Armenia’s Areni – 1 Cave. These shoes are known as the Areni – 1 Shoe and believed to be 5,500 years old. Spectrometry Laboratories at the Universities of California and Oxford carbon dated them to 3,500 BC, making them the oldest closed toe leather shoes ever found in existence.
Because animal and plant materials decompose quickly, it is remarkable that the shoes survived the years. Their survival can be attributed to two things, the environment of the cave and the fact that they were buried under a pile of sheep droppings. The Areni – 1 Cave created a cool and dry environment and the sheep droppings acted as a protective barrier against the elements, sealing them away for archaeologists to find thousands of years later!
The Areni – 1 Shoes are made of a single piece of cowhide that was cut into two layers and tanned. Archaeologists believe that after tanning the whole piece of leather was wet, cut, and fit to the wearer. The shoe was likely sewn using the wearer’s foot as the final mold. They were stitched in the front and back with cords used as laces to tighten them to the foot. Size-wise the shoes correspond to a modern-day US 7; however, it is unclear whether they were worn by a male or female.
The discovery of these shoes provides concrete evidence that Old World populations had been using footwear since at least the Chalcolithic period. As people advanced and began traveling farther distances, protection for the foot became a necessity. The terrain near where the Areni – 1 Shoes were found is very rugged, composed of sharp stones and prickly bushes. This combined with extreme temperatures in the summer and winter created a need to protect the feet. Additionally, considerable signs of wear at the heel and ball of the shoes tells us that the wearer used them to walk significant distances.
This simple shoe design is likely the earliest leather shoe design and originated in Armenia before spreading worldwide as more humans began wearing shoes. The design has drawn comparisons to the footwear of the Balkans, specifically the opanke, a traditional Balkan shoe that is still worn during special events and festivals! It is speculated that the Areni – 1 Shoe is a predecessor to the North American Moccasin, which has inspired the design of many shoes still worn today.