Scientists say 6,200-year-old shoes found in cave challenge ‘simplistic assumptions’ about early humans

Researchers say grass sandals found in a cave in Spain are 6,200 years old, making them the oldest woven grass footwear ever discovered in Europe and forcing them to rethink “simplistic assumptions” about our human ancestors in the region.

The announcement came from a team that has studied 76 objects found many years ago in a cave in southern Spain. Researchers from the Universidad de Alcalá and the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona said the objects were the first direct evidence of basketry among hunter-gatherer and early agrarian societies in southern Europe.

Among the discoveries were baskets, sandals and ecological tools made from reeds and esparto grass. By studying the raw materials the objects were made from, the researchers were able to date them to the early and middle Holocene period, between 9,500 and 6,200 years ago.

A wooden mace and two types of sandals woven from esparto grass, found in a cave in southern Spain and said by researchers to be 6,200 years old.

MUTERMUR project

“The quality and technological complexity of the basketry makes us question the simplistic assumptions we have about human societies prior to the arrival of agriculture in southern Europe,” said Francisco Martínez Sevilla, a researcher in the prehistory department at the University of Alcalá .

María Herrero Otal, who co-authored the study, told CBS News that the research offered “a unique opportunity to study social aspects of early human groups” because the type of fiber-based materials discovered are not typically recovered from archaeological sites.

“This means that the use of esparto grass began at least 9,500 years ago and it is a tradition that is still alive in Iberia [Spain and Portugal],” Otal told CBS. “It’s spectacular how the techniques, the raw material and its preparation have been used for thousands of years and there are still people working the same way.”

The sandals found in the cave represent “the earliest and most extensive assemblage of prehistoric footwear, both in the Iberian Peninsula and in Europe, unmatched in other latitudes,” according to the study, which was published in the journal Science Advances.

Interior of Cueva de los Murciélagos de Albuñol, Granada, Spain.

Blas Ramos Rodríguez

The objects were first discovered during mining activities in the Cueva de los Murciélagos, which literally translates as “bat cave” in Albuñol in Granada, Spain, during the 19th century. But the authors of this study concluded that the materials discovered were about 2,000 years older than previously thought.

According to researchers, the low humidity level combined with the cool, dry winds inside the cave helped prevent bacteria from developing, allowing the fiber-based objects to survive for millennia.

The researchers said two types of footwear were discovered at the site, one with a consistently woven sole and another with a harder “central core.” Although no laces were found with the first type, “for the central core type, a small group of fibers originating from the bottom of the sole may have been placed between the first and second toe. These fibers are also connected by a braid attached to the center of the sandal, which could be tied around the ankle.”

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