Researchers announced that the woven grass sandals discovered in Spain's Cueva de los Murciélagos are roughly 6,200 years old, making them the oldest shoes ever discovered in Europe.
In 1857, miners working deep in Spain’s Cueva de los Murciélagos (“cave of bats”) stumbled across an incredible forgotten chamber filled with mummified corpses, baskets, wooden tools, and woven objects. Now, researchers say that 22 pairs of woven grass sandals discovered in the cave are some 6,200 years old — and thus the oldest shoes ever found in Europe.
According to a study published in the journal Science Advances, the shoes are “the earliest and widest-ranging assemblage of prehistoric footwear, both in the Iberian Peninsula and in Europe, unparalleled at other latitudes.”
CNN reports that the sandals were first collected by Spanish archaeologist Manuel de Góngora y Martínez in 1867, 10 years after miners discovered and looted the burial site. He gathered the objects, including the shoes, and gave them to museums. They were examined in the 1970s, but this latest study found that the sandals were much older than originally thought.
Made of grasses and other natural fibers, the sandals were preserved for thousands of years by the cave’s dry, cool air. CBS reports that two different kinds of shoes were discovered, one with a “consistent woven sole” and one with a hard “central core.” The second kind of shoe appeared to have a set of rudimentary laces made of fibers that “may have been placed between the first and second toes” and which “connected to a braid fixed to the middle of the sandal, which could be tied around the ankle.”
Based on Góngora’s notes about the discovery, researchers also believe that the bodies found in the cave were interred there while wearing the shoes. Because some of the sandals show very little wear, it’s additionally possible that they were crafted specifically for burial purposes.
The researchers also examined a number of other objects discovered in Cueva de los Murciélagos, like woven baskets, which they say offer a fascinating new perspective on pre-agricultural societies in Europe.
“The quality and technological complexity of the basketry makes us question the simplistic assumptions we have about human communities prior to the arrival of agriculture in southern Europe,” Francisco Martínez Sevilla, one of the study’s authors, explained.
According to CNN, that’s because most research on pre-agricultural societies is based on durable objects instead of perishable ones, like woven shoes.
María Herrero Otal, another of the study’s authors, explained to CBS that the shoes are thus a rare find for archaeologists and offer “a unique opportunity to study social aspects of early human groups.”
The sandals and other items discovered in Cueva de los Murciélagos also offer a fascinating look at the long history of woven goods in Europe. Today, people in Spain and Portugal continue to weave grass objects.
“It means that the use of esparto grass has started at least 9,500 years ago, and it is a tradition which is still live in Iberia [Spain and Portugal],” Otal explained to CBS. She added: “It is spectacular how the techniques, the raw material and its preparation has been used for thousands of years and there are still people working in the same way.”
After reading about how Europe’s oldest known shoes were discovered in a Spanish cave, see how researchers found the world’s oldest bed in a 200,000-year-old South African cave dwelling. Then, discover how North America’s largest known cave art was uncovered in a cave in Alabama.