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Where Did Shoes Come From?

Where Did Shoes Come From?

Ooh, aah, ouch! People in ancient times must have yelped like this when they walked on rough ground without any shoes on. And it was probably the pain and discomfort that propelled them to cover their feet for protection.

Footwear has a history which goes back many thousands of years, and has long been an article of prestige for people in different societies.

Where Did Shoes Come From? [Illustration by Anup Singh]
The earliest footwear, probably made of plaited grass or rawhide held to the foot with thongs was undoubtedly born of the necessity to provide some protection when moving over rough terrain in varying weather conditions.

Scientists estimate the first shoes were made from animal skins during the Ice Age (5000,000 years ago). The biggest find of shoes from this period is thought to date back to 8000 BC and belonged to Native Americans in Missouri. Primitive shoes dating back to 3300 BC were discovered in the French Alps.

And there still exist examples of footwear from ancient civilizations, such as the Egyptians, Chinese and Vikings. As soon as human society started getting refined and was divided into classes, the rich and influential began distinguishing themselves by the craftsmanship and decoration on their shoes.

Early paintings of Pharaohs, the rulers of Egypt, around 3000 BC depict Pharaohs followed by their slaves bearing their sandals. The image suggests that in ancient Egypt the sandal was a sign of power and rank.

The Greeks in ancient times took good care of their feet as well. They adapted their footwear for every type of activity. The height of the sole and the colour of the shoes indicated the wearer’s social class.

Ancient Romans devised military style thongs called ‘caligae’, which enabled their legions to travel the empire on foot. The caligae was a sturdy thick-soled heavy leather sandal. When victorious soldiers returned from war they frequently substituted the bronze nails, which held the caligae together with gold and silver tacks.

Even in Ancient China during 2nd century BC, shoes were a sign of status. Peasants wore straw sandals and aristocrats wore turquoise coloured fine cloth slippers sometimes made of silk. Also it was a common practice for the women to bind their feet in small shoes to make them real small. Although the practice was very painful, bound feet were a sign of beauty in ancient China.

In India too, we find many references to simple footwear in the oldest of epics, the Ramayana. Lord Rama’s wooden sandals are mentioned prominently but they seemed to have been simple things. A flat wooden base with a toe hold sticking out, what is commonly called a khadau. References to Gautama Buddha also mention him taking off his sandals before leaving behind the life of a prince. That was 2500 years ago, in the fifth century BC.

Footwear has figured widely in western mythology, folk stories and superstitions too. The Greek god Mercury wore winged sandals, and there are very few of us who do not remember childhood tales of Puss in Boots, the Seven League Boots, Cinderella and the Old Woman who Lived in a Shoe.

Most cultures have stories where shoes play a starring role. No wonder. After all, these humble toe-holders protect us from the pricks and pins of life.