By Kay Sluterbeck
By Kay Sluterbeck
If you're a woman who wears a size 7 shoe - and you happen to be 5,500 years old - your lost right moccasin has been found, and it's in great condition. It might smell a bit funky, though. The world's oldest shoe was recently discovered under a layer of sheep dung in a cave in Armenia, on the border between Iran and Turkey. This shoe was worn by someone who lived a thousand years before the Great Pyramid of Giza was built.

It isn't known if the shoe was accidentally lost by its owner, or if it was deliberately buried in the cave as part of a ritual. Along with the shoe, the archaeologists also found three pots, each containing a child's skull, as well as containers of well-preserved barley, wheat, apricot and other edible plants.

The right-footed shoe is made from a single piece of cowhide that was wrapped around the foot. The leather was tanned using vegetable oil. The back and top of the shoe were stitched together with a leather thong that ran through four and 15 sets of eyelets respectively. Loose grass was stuffed into the shoe, either as padding to keep the shoe warm or as a way to maintain the shape of the shoe when it was not being worn.

"We were all amazed to see its state of preservation and the fine details such as the laces, eyelets and the straw inside it," said Ron Pinhasi of Ireland's University College Cork and lead author of the research published in "PLoS One," a journal of the Public Library of Science.

Scientists aren't really sure if the shoe was worn by a man or a woman, because people were probably much smaller 5,500 years ago. They speculate that it may have been worn by an early farmer living in the mountains of the Vayotz Dzor province.

Its incredible preservation is due to the cool, dry cave and the thick layer of sheep dung. The dung acted as a solid seal to keep the ancient leather piece in perfect condition. In fact, the shoe was in such good shape that archaeologists initially thought that the shoe and other objects found in the cave were only about 600-700 years old.

"It was only when the material was dated that we realized that the shoe was older by a few hundred years than the shoes worn by Oetzi, the Iceman," said Pinhasi.

Oetzi, you may recall, is Europe's oldest natural human mummy, dating back 5,300 years. He was found in a melting glacier, and is preserved in cold storage in a scientific facility. Oetzi's shoes included an inner "sock" made of grass, and a separate sole and upper made of deer and bear leather held together by a leather strap. Prior to the discovery of the shoe in the Armenian cave, Oetzi's shoes were the oldest known leather footwear, and they were not complete; only parts of his footwear were discovered.

The previous oldest known non-leather footwear were sandals made from plants found in a cave in Missouri. They were made and worn a few hundred years after the Armenian shoe.

Three samples of the shoe's leather were carbon-dated at the University of Oxford and the University of California. All tests gave the same results: Both the shoe and the grass in it date back to the Chalcolithic period, around 3,500 B.C.

Pinhasi says, "We now know that people were wearing shoes already 5,500 years ago and that these were not so different from the ones we had until recent times." In fact, up until the 1950s, shoes very similar to the shoe from the cave, called "pampooties," were worn on the Aran Islands in the west of Ireland.

Armenia's climate 5,500 years ago was similar to today's - hot in the summer, snowy in winter. The owner of the shoe would have worn wool and leather clothes, and relied on the shoes for protection as she walked around the rocky terrain. The shoe may have been made locally, or acquired through trade with the more sophisticated peoples of Mesopotamia.