Looking out of the mouth of the Fort Rock cave at the Sagebrush Sea, one can only imagine the thoughts of those that lived there thousands of years ago. Sagebrush sandals, determined to be 9,300-10,250 years old, were found in the cave. These sandals are the oldest ever found in the world.
Luther S. Cressman, an archaeologist and founder of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Oregon, found the sandals in 1938. He knew they were old but some of his colleagues doubted their age. The radiocarbon dating process had not been developed yet. In 1951, he was vindicated when the sandals were radiocarbon dated using the new process.
A small hearth was found in the cave and it was radiocarbon dated to be 15,000 years old. Several stone tools were found nearby. Though that date was questioned by some, in 2009 human coprolites (fossilized poop) determined to be from 14,300 years ago were found in nearby Paisley Cave. In 2009 a multiple function tool made from agate was discovered in Rimrock Draw Rock Shelter, near Riley, Oregon. It may have been made as long ago as 16,000 years ago.
Other ancient sandals have been found but never in the quantity found at Fort Rock. Nearly 100 sandals were found ranging from child-sized to adult. They are all the same style with a flat bottom and flap covering the toe area. The sagebrush bark is woven in a distinctive twining style. Sandals of this type were found at various locations in southeast Oregon and northern Nevada. In more recent times, ethnographers found that members of the Klamath and Paiute tribes, who lived in the Fort Rock area, wore footwear woven from sagebrush and tule.
The location where the sandals were found was likely a lake shore 10,000 years ago. Native peoples may have lived there because of the easy access to game, fish, and edible plants. At the present time, the cave borders a huge expanse of dry sagebrush steppe habitat. The climate changed after Mount Mazama blew 7,600 years ago. A thick layer of ash from that eruption blanketed an area covering 500,000 square miles in western North America.
If you want to see this site, you will need to go with a guide since access is regulated by Oregon Parks and Recreation Department in partnership with the University of Oregon. Go here for more information – Fort Rock Cave.
If you want to see the sandals in person, there are some on display at the University of Oregon Museum of Natural and Cultural History. Click here for a good photo of them – sandals. The Museum also has a collection of stone tools and other fiber artifacts excavated from the cave. You can see a small display about the sandals at the Fort Rock Valley Homestead Museum. See my post on that Museum and information about the Fort Rock formation here.