foot shaped impressions on sandstone

A sandal-like impressions found on a slab of hardened dune near the small Southern Cape seaside town of Kleinkranz in 2018 by South Africans Andre and Emily Brink.Credit: Charles Helm

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Small sandal-like prints, found in sandstone at three places along South Africa’s Cape coast, are shedding more light on when and where footwear was first used. The prints seem to suggest that hominins from Africa, rather than Western Europe, may have been the first to fashion some form of foot protection during the Middle Stone Age. However, because very few such sites have yet been discovered worldwide, experts in a study published in Ichnos are continuing their search for better preserved examples.

Charles Helm, an ichnologist from the Nelson Mandela University in South Africa, who led the study, says the search is continuing for sites with longer and better preserved tracks. Finding more sites will help elucidate where and when footwear was first worn.

The sites described in the paper were found by members of the Cape South Coast Ichnology Group, which, since 2007, has scoured some 350 kilometres of South African coastline in search of tracks left by ancient animals and hominins. The tracks found at Kleinkrantz, Goukamma and Woody Cape are quite small, and therefore possibly left by younger hominins or smaller-sized individuals. Over the years these sandy tracks hardened and were preserved in aeolianite sandstone rock.

So far, only a handful of tracks made by shod hominins from the Middle Stone Age have ever been found, and only in France, Greece and South Africa. Bar one example from Western Europe, the three track sites newly described in Ichnos seem to be older than most others. Elephant and bovid fossil tracks previously found close to the Southern Cape sites were dated to have been made between 70 000 and 130 000 years ago.

Helm says it is generally much easier to identify tracks left by bare feet. To aid future research efforts, more criteria must be developed to better identify tracks made by individuals wearing footwear.

The archaeological record from the Middle Stone Age on the Cape’s south coast has been described as remarkably rich, with evidence of artwork, and the heat treatment of stone tools already pointing to early modern human behaviour in the region.