When Dr. Ron Pinhasi, a lecturer in prehistoric archaeology at the University College Cork, and his team of researchers excavated a cave in Armenia, they never expected to stumble upon a find of a lifetime – an impeccably well preserved prehistoric shoe. To coincide with the publication of the article, First Direct Evidence of Chalcolithic Footwear from the Near Eastern Highlands, which discusses this discovery, Dr. Pinhasi was nice enough to answer a few questions for us via email on his research, his team’s discovery and his experience with PLoS ONE.
First, a bit of detail on your scientific background – how did you become interested in archeology and biological anthropology?
As an undergraduate in Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, Canada, I enrolled in an introductory course on Human Origins and I was immediately drawn to prehistoric archaeology especially in the Old World and to the study of Human Origins.
How did your team discover the shoe?
Diana Zardaryan, an Armenian Ph.D. student, discovered a plastered pit which cuts into a floor of one of the dwelling structures. She excavated it and discovered the shoe underneath a broken vessel and in association with two horns of an adult wild goat. We have had various medieval pits and other features that are cutting into several Chalcolithic layers and so the preliminary assumption was that the shoe and other objects in the pit are only 700 years old. However, the goat’s horns were not twisted and Prof. Guy Bar-Oz, our archaeozoologist, suspected that the horns and either of the items may be of a much older age. We then took samples of the shoe’s leather and straw and sent it to two radiocarbon laboratories. Once the results arrived, we realized that it is contemporaneous with our Chalcolithic occupational phases in the cave.
Ancient human footwear has been found in other areas of the world, such as in the Arnold Research Cave and on Ötzi, the Iceman. Is this shoe unique from the other examples and what can it teach us about European footwear around 3,500 B.C.?
The Areni-1 shoe is unique as it differs in technology and style from both the Arnold Research Cave and the Ötzi footwear. The early New World slip-on shoes are made of twine while the Areni-1 shoe is made of processed leather. The Ötzi footwear is made of a combination of both. I think that the importance of our discovery is that it is the type of one-piece leather shoe that was common in parts of Europe until the 20th century. It is an example of a relatively simple invention that spread across Europe. But since the discovery of such objects is so rare we cannot be certain whether it was invented in the region of Areni-1, or perhaps much earlier in another region. It does however suggest that this invention may have a non-European (Near Eastern) origin.
Do you know who the shoe belonged to or why it was in a clay pot?
It is a U.S. size 7 (women) shoe and it is more likely that it was worn by a female but…it may have belonged to a small male or to an adolescent. The shoe shows indications that it has been used for walking- impression of the big toe, and several of the eyelets have been repaired by cutting new ones. At the same time, there is very little wear on the sole part of the shoe and considering the rocky terrain in this region and on the basis of ethnographic information, it is clear that the shoe was not worn to the point that it has to be discarded. This suggests that the pit was more than likely not a discard feature…but we can speculate that it may have had a ritualistic or symbolic context. We hope that the next seasons will reveal more about the nature of the Chalcolithic occupational phases in this cave and the various functions of the various chambers and galleries inside it.
During the course of your research, what was your most surprising discovery?
The shoe and the 3 children skulls each in a separate vessel were the most surprising discoveries in Areni-1 and since I started excavating in Armenia in 2005. But this is archaeology: at times, you have great expectations, which end up in disappointment; while at other times, when you do not anticipate any major discovery you have a sensational find.
What is your next big research project or where would you like to go from here?
My main focus is the much earlier Lower Middle and Upper Paleolithic periods. I am directing with Prof. Daniel Adler (University of Connecticut) the excavation of a Middle Paleolithic site of Lusakert 1 in Armenia with a focus on studying late Neanderthal survival and extinction and the first arrival of modern humans in the southern Caucasus. I am also the Principal Investigator of a Science Foundation of Ireland project that looks at Neanderthal phylogeography in the southern vs. northern Caucasus which involves study of Neanderthal ancient DNA, and new chronometric dating of key sites in southern Russia, Georgia and Armenia. However, I am still hoping that we will find new sites with Neolithic strata as I am very interested in the origins of agriculture, pastoralism and early animal domestication (especially sheep and goat) in this region.
Since this is your second PLoS ONE paper, why did you decide to submit to us again?
I strongly support the open-access policy of PLoS and the fact that PLoS ONE is a peer-reviewed journal which accepts primary research manuscripts from any scientific field. I had very good experiences with PLoS both in 2005 (PLoS Biology) and with PLoS ONE last year. I greatly value your professionalism, speed, etc. and I intend to continue and submit papers to PLoS.