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First Footwear Dates to 40,000 Years Ago

First Footwear Dates to 40,000 Years Ago

New Research Supports Biblical View of Human Origins

I woke up this mornin’, feelin’ ‘round for my shoes. Know ‘bout ‘at I got these old walkin’ blues. – Robert Johnson, Walkin’ Blues

New research* by paleoanthropologists from Washington University and the Chinese Academy of Sciences indicates that modern humans were “feelin’ ‘round” for their shoes earlier than previously thought.

Anthropologists have great interest in the origin and natural history of footwear because it gives insight into a unique human cultural adaptation that assisted the spread of humanity around the world. Humans make use of footwear for protection in all environments and insulation in cold climates.

Unfortunately, footwear isn’t readily preserved in the archeological record because it is often made from soft material. The oldest footwear dates back to only about 10,000 years ago. [Work reported in 2005], however, demonstrated that foot anatomy can indirectly shed some light on the footwear use. Research indicates that toes become less robust when shoes are worn. Interestingly, other parts of the skeletal anatomy are unaffected. The 2005 study indicated that footwear was worn by modern humans about 30,000 years ago. Still, the question remains as to when the first footwear was worn.

A new opportunity to address the question surfaced recently with the discovery of modern human remains in a cave near Zhoukoudian, China. These remains date to about 40,000 years in age and include foot bones.

As part of this new study, the researchers compared the toe size of Europeans, Inuits, and Native Americans. For this study, the Europeans included in the sample made extensive use of footwear, the Inuits used crude footwear, and the Native Americans spent a significant time barefoot. They found that toe size inversely correlated with use of footwear, demonstrating the strength of this method to indirectly detect footwear use.

As part of the calibration, the scientists also examined the foot structure of Neanderthals and the near anatomically modern humans recovered in the Qafzeh-Skhul cave. The toes of both of these hominids were much more robust than even those of the Native Americans in the sample. It’s not likely that these creatures used shoes.

The researchers then determined that the toe size of the modern human remains recovered recently in China were consistent with extensive use of footwear. This find pushes the use of footwear back to 40,000 years ago.

This discovery fits well with the biblical account of human origins as embodied in the Reasons To Believe (RTB) creation model. In short, the RTB model for humanity’s beginnings asserts that God created Adam and Eve, in His image, through direct, miraculous intervention. (See Who Was Adam? for a detailed description of the model and the scientific support for it.)

This model regards the hominids found in the fossil record as animals also created by God’s direct involvement. Accordingly, these creatures existed for a time and then went extinct. RTB’s model considers the hominids to be remarkable creatures that walked erect, possessed some level of limited intelligence, and emotional capacity. This allowed these animals to employ crude tools and even adopt some level of ‘culture’ much like baboons, gorillas, and chimpanzees. While the RTB model posits that the hominids were created by God’s divine fiat, they were not spiritual beings, made in His image. The RTB model reserves this status exclusively for modern humans.

The RTB model treats the hominids as analogous to, but distinct from the great apes. Because of this, the RTB model predicts that anatomical, physiological, biochemical, and genetic similarities will exist among the hominids and modern humans to varying degrees. But since the hominids were not made in God’s image, they are expected to be clearly distinct from modern humans, particularly in their cognitive capacity, behavior, ‘technology,’ and ‘culture.’

The early appearance of footwear among modern humans—and the absence of any evidence for footwear usage among the hominids like Neanderthals and the near anatomically modern humans—match the predictions made by the RTB model. The use of footwear is a diagnostic for the image of God. This behavior requires advanced cognitive ability, creativity, and problem solving skills to recognize that covering the feet offers protection from harsh terrain and cold. Designing and manufacturing the tools to make footwear, too, reflects these same qualities.

Only humans made in God’s image get the “walkin’ blues.”

*This study made science news headlines when first published. I discussed the scientific and biblical implications of this research on the June 9, 2008 edition of our podcast, RTB’s Science News Flash. This podcast offers a unique Christian perspective on headline-grabbing discoveries. A free subscription is available through iTunes.