July 15, 1998 COLUMBIA, Mo. -- Eight thousand years ago, no living culture had ever heard of Nike, Reebok, Adidas, Birkenstock or Gucci, but they knew the importance of a good, comfortable walking shoe. University of Missouri-Columbia researcher Michael O'Brien is trying to learn more about those cultures with his recent discovery of some of the oldest shoes known to exist in the Midwest. His discovery will be published this week in the journal Science.
Since the mid-1950s, the University has amassed a large collection of sandals and slip on type shoes from an archeological site in central Missouri, but no known safe method has been available to date the shoes. Previous dating methods required a large amount of the material to be destroyed during the dating process.
O'Brien decided to take advantage of a recent technique, accelerator mass spectrometry, a process that was used to date the Shroud of Turin and destroys significantly less material than other methods. The result was accurate dating and insight into a culture that lived more than 8,000 years ago in the Midwest. This marks the oldest such discovery east of the Rocky Mountains. Older artifacts have been found west of the mountains on the Colorado Plateau, which has an arid environment favorable to preservation.
"These sandals are perishable and the fact that we had any material at all was really good," O'Brien said. "When we went in for the dating, we selected different types of shoe construction and discovered a range of 7,500 years of construction technique."
"The earliest shoe dated in the research was 8,325 years old. This very early shoe construction shows how people were making use of environmental resources," O'Brien said. "This collection is a very significant example of one kind of a material culture. We had assumed that cultures living in that particular time frame had materials such as these, but with these new findings, this is now proof."
O'Brien will use the material and information learned in his discovery to create a database for future use. Currently, there is no usable database with data on cultural material that can be used for such studies.
"Fifteen to 20 years from now, people can come back and use this database for their own studies and add to the knowledge that we have already gained," O'Brien said. "With what we have learned in this discovery, it adds one more piece to the puzzle."
O'Brien was assisted in his research by Jenna Kuttruff, an associate professor in the School of Human Ecology at Louisiana State University; and S. Gail DeHart, a graduate student at LSU.
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