Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1978:
ÍTZI'S SHOES

by John H. Lienhard

Today, let us walk a mile in a pair of Stone Age shoes. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

In another program we talk about Ítzi, whose preserved body turned up in 1991, as Alpine ice began thawing 5300 years after his death. We suddenly had an intact Stone Age dweller along with all his personal equipment. Here was a stunning window into the past.

Then Petr Hlavacek, who teaches shoe technology in the Czech Republic, learned that Ítzi's gear included shoes. Hlavacek had already done a vast amount of shoe reconstruction. And a pair of shoes from the Stone Age seemed like a gift from Heaven.

However, his credentials were not those of an anthropologist or archaeologist. Ítzi's custodians did not fall over Ítzi's feet to give Hlavacek rights of inspection. He had to fight bureaucratic battles to get at Ítzi's shoes (which were located in Mainz) and at his feet (located with the rest of his body in Bolzano, Italy).

Writer Burkhard Bilger talks about Hlavacek's magical diagnos-tic abilities. By studying the stumbling wear patterns on the boots of a seventeenth-century general, he'd showed that the fellow had died of syphilis. He'd reconstructed sandals of an American native who'd died under volcanic ash in Oregon -- five thousand years before Ítzi. Hlavacek could tell you how Alexander's armies succeeded because the Persians had made their shoes -- how Egyptian armies had failed during the Six Day's War, in part because they wore nailed boots. The nails conducted heat and burned their feet.

Now he was finally armed with knowledge of Ítzi's shoes, as well as the feet that'd occupied them. He was able, not only to reconstruct the shoes, but to learn exactly how they related to Ítzi's feet. There followed a series of revelations.

The shoes were complex. The leather on the bottom was from a bear. It'd been cured in a mixture of bears brains and fat from its liver. Deer leather formed the top. All this was mounted on a mesh of braided linden bark. The bindings were made of calf leather. Straw was used for insulation, and moss as lining.

Hlavacek and a colleague set out to make three exact replicas of Ítzi's shoes, and five additional pairs, each fitted to a specific living person. They used flint to cut the material and bone needles to sew it.

Now three people don these Stone Age shoes and head off into the snowy mountain terrain, during the first spring melt. The shoes serve remarkably well. When they have to wade through snowmelt water, they feel an initial sting of cold. But the inside immediately warms up again. Traction is excellent. And the shoes offer no opportunity at all for blisters.

Finally, Hlavacek walks Bilger through a shoe shop, pointing out how toes are pinched, air can't circulate, Velcro straps cut off circulation. He frowns at vinyl that cannot mold itself to our feet. He leaves us, at last, with the remarkable fact that Ítzi may've been better shod 5300 years ago, than you and I are today.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


B. Bilger, Sole Survivor. The New Yorker, Feb. 14&21, 2005, pp. 152-167.

I am most grateful to Margaret Culbertson, librarian at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, for providing the Bilger article.

For a brief article on the shoes by Hlavacek, see: http://www.exrea.net/rea/clanky03_studie.html

For pictures of Ítzi's, and other, shoes, see: http://www.univie.ac.at/cga/art/footwear.html



1895 Women's footwear

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2005 by John H. Lienhard.