Scientists have identified what they believe are the oldest shoes ever found in Europe – a pair of intricately-woven sandals made of grass that dates back more than 6,000 years.
The shoes are among dozens of items that were discovered in the 19th century in a cave system in southern Spain, along with stone tools and ancient boar teeth.
They were found in the 200ft-deep Cueva de los Murciélagos, known in English as the Cave of the Bats, when miners started excavating nitrogen-rich bat guano or droppings in the 19th century.
They were preserved thanks to the very low humidity levels inside the cave.
The items, which included cylindrical baskets, were all made from a fibre called esparto grass. It is used to this day in Spain to make baskets and hats.
A collection of 76 surviving artefacts has now been analysed by Spanish scientists, who found that the espadrille-type sandals are around 6,000 years old, making them the oldest shoes ever found in Europe.
They are significantly older than the grass and leather footwear worn by Otzi the Iceman, the hunter-gatherer who lived about 5,000 years ago and whose well-preserved body was found on a high mountain pass on the border between Italy and Austria in 1991.
Twisted or braided cords would have secured the sandals to the feet of the hunter-gatherers who wore them.
As well as the woven-grass objects, miners came across several mummified corpses and a wooden hammer and digging sticks. Many of the discoveries were looted, sold or destroyed by the miners and locals.
Of the items that survived, carbon dating showed that the oldest items are more than 9,000 years old and were created by hunter-gatherers during the Mesolithic age.
The sandals and baskets are considered to be the most intact plant-based objects from prehistoric Europe.
It was “extremely rare” for such organic objects to have survived to the present day, the scientists said. “Cueva de los Murciélagos is one of the best-known sites in southern Europe for its exceptional preservation of organic materials by desiccation.”
The sandals, baskets and wooden tools “constitute a unique sample of organic artefacts [that are] absent in other archaeological sites of early farmer communities”, the experts said.