The Iceman’s Custom Kicks

Shoelaces have lately been a source of great anxiety in our home. My six-year-old has been struggling to tie his shoes, working on it for months, in fact. He’s a bit of a perfectionist, you see, and he doesn’t respond well to instruction from his parents (fortunately he does much better with his school teachers). In the midst of our rushed mornings, I have been slowing down enough to (mostly) patiently show him the knot over and over, gently guide his fingers when he would allow me to, and encourage him along to my absolute wits end.

Shoelaces, photo taken in Sweden
The bane of a child’s quest for independence. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We could just get him Velcro shoes and call it good, but I know this is a life skill he needs to have. It’s just not intuitive for him, maybe not for people in general. Shoes used to be fastened with buckles, after all, and shoelaces weren’t even invented until the end of the 18th century. At least that’s what I thought until I came across a story.

A little over 5000 years ago, a man named Ӧtzi tied his shoes and went for a walk through the Alps. Having forgotten to check his weather app before leaving, the forty-something year-old shepherd got caught in a sudden winter storm and unfortunately died of exposure.  But don’t feel too bad for him because he just as likely died from blood loss after receiving an arrow wound to the shoulder. And he might have been with several friends at the time which means it’s possible that his walk was really a raid of some sort. What we do know is that Ӧtzi was almost certainly not his real name.

This “Ӧtzi” is Europe’s oldest natural mummy, dating to about 3,300 BC and discovered in 1991 in the Ӧtzal Alps, on the Austria/Italy border. Much of this ancient gentleman’s story is speculation, of course, but it amazes me how much is known about him. For example, scientists know that Ӧtzi was lactose intolerant, was likely sterile, and that he had a two-week bout of illness about two months before he died.

But despite these challenges, Ӧtzi had an unwavering sense of style. The mummy was found wearing a full set of clothing including leggings, loincloth, coat, belt, and a hat, all sewn from leathers of various animal skins. He also sported a great pair of shoes.

It’s his shoes that interest me the most because for a while, they were the oldest leather shoes that archaeologists had ever discovered. And they had laces. There are some older, fibrous sandals dating back about 8000 years that were discovered in the 1950s in caves in my own great state (because what Missourian doesn’t love a great pair of shoes). And a few years after the discovery of Ӧtzi the Ice Man, several pairs of slightly older leather laced shoes were discovered in an Armenian cave.

English: As of 2010, the oldest known leather ...
5,500 year old shoes. So last season.(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The cool thing about all of the shoe discoveries is that even though we have pretty good anatomical evidence that people have been wearing them for around 40,000 years, shoes tend to be made from materials that don’t preserve all that well. And because of the laced-up design of both Ӧtzi’s shoes and the cave shoes, we now know that when the Englishman Harvey Kennedy patented the shoelace back in 1790, he was really just standing on the shoulders of ancient giants in the shoe industry.

Humans have been tying shoes and tripping on trailing laces for millennia. And it’s possible that for as long as there have been shoes to tie, there have been trends in fashion footwear to follow. According to archaeologist Jacqui Wood who has studied both footwear discoveries, “The Iceman’s shoe was in another league altogether.”

The Armenian shoes are of a simpler design that has been seen over a long period of time in different parts of the world. It was the everyman’s shoe design. Ӧtzi, however, had himself a custom pair of kicks, with the sides and bases made of different types of leather, and netting on the inside to pull the shoes tight around the foot.

shoes makes the man
Of course the Nike swoosh has long since worn off of Ӧtzi’s shoes, but I’m sure it used to be there. (Photo credit: woodleywonderworks)

You can bet that when Ӧtzi laced up his shoes in the morning, it was with great pride, probably using something fancy like a surgeon’s knot or a turquoise turtle shoelace knot. Or maybe he went for speed using the standard Ian knot which claims to be the fastest shoelace knot in the world.

Personally, I like the traditional loop, swoop, and pull method and that’s the one I have been attempting to teach to my son. Though he’s been able to hit a thrown baseball since he was three and has an unbelievable natural tennis swing (which I think is safe to say he did NOT inherit from his mother), his fine motor skills have been a little slower to develop. So when yesterday morning he finally tied his shoes entirely by himself, this mama was ready to celebrate.

Of course, my husband recently injured the ulnar collateral ligament in his dominant thumb and is now wearing a brace that makes shoe-tying virtually impossible so I still have to tie someone else’s shoes in the morning. Alas, a mother’s work is never done.

Think it's time for someone to learn a one-handed knot.
Think it’s time for someone to learn a one-handed knot.
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