EUGENE - Oregon scientists in the 1930s knew they'd found some really old shoes in a desert cave, but it took 70 years and an international expert to note that they are the oldest known shoes in the world.
Petr Hlavacek of the Technical University in the Czech Republic traveled to Eugene last month to examine the Museum of Natural History's collection of 10,000-year-old footwear.
It was then that Hlavacek proclaimed a group of woven sandals the oldest shoes in the world.
"We've always represented these as Oregon's oldest running shoes," said Tom Connolly, research director at the museum at the University of Oregon.
"Now this expands our view," he said. "The sandals are important not just for Oregon but they're important globally."
It was 1938 when the late UO anthropologist Luther Cressman dug out of a cave about 70 pairs of worn sandals. Climate in the cave in Central Oregon kept the sandals dry and relatively well preserved.
Made of sagebrush bark, the ancient flip-flops were found below a layer of 7,500-year-old ash from the Mount Mazama volcanic eruption that created Crater Lake.
The discovery helped Cressman jump-start the museum, which continues today as the repository of state-owned archeological materials.
It was their discovery that forced anthropologists to rethink theories on human habitation. The sandals doubled earlier estimates of how long ago the first humans lived in the Northwest.
"This point is a milestone of major significance in our understanding of the New World," said Ross West, UO science writer. "It was the sandals that were, in a sense, the Rosetta stone, making understanding possible."
It appears that the now-dry Oregon desert was once a giant lake-marsh area.
"Most of the sandals are heavily caked with mud," Connolly said.
The shoes come in a variety of sizes, from those worn by young children to large men's sizes.
A few pairs are now on display at the museum. The rest are kept in climate-controlled storage, pulled out only for research or the occasional international expert.