Prehistoric Fungus: Did Cavemen Get Athlete’s Foot?

When we think of neanderthals, we imagine delicious diets of meat and seeds, devoured by barefoot brutes in animal skins. We certainly don’t imagine foot coverings of any sort. Yet, walking around barefoot is often blamed for wicked cases of athlete’s foot, toenail fungus and warts. So did the cavemen have the smelliest, wartiest, most fungus-infested feet in history? Not surprisingly, someone has already pondered and extensively studied this very question.

caveman drawing

Flickr user Adam Kinney

Did Cavemen Get Athlete’s Foot?

It’s hard to know whether cavemen were attacked by athlete’s foot, says Will Harcourt-Smith, an expert in early human fossils at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.* “Some infections leave their mark on bones. Athlete’s foot is not one of those infections,” he explains. “But if we make some logical assumptions, we might be able to make a good guess.”

Did Foot Fungus Exist Thousands Of Years Ago?

The Trichophyton genus of fungus that causes athlete’s foot was “definitely around back then, and probably much earlier,” according to University of Michigan fungus evolution expert Tim James. Since fungi thrives in warm, moist, filthy environments, it only makes sense that cavemen homes would be covered in it, he goes on to say.

Did Cavemen Endure The Right Conditions For Fungus To Thrive?

Bob Neinast, a blogger for the Society of Barefoot Living, disagrees with the theory that cavemen must have had athlete’s foot because they walked around shoe-less. He argues that athlete’s foot is largely a problem of shoe-wearing folks. His position is that people who go barefoot keep their feet too dry for fungus to take hold and multiply.

Were neanderthals even barefoot at all? Will Harcourt-Smith says that people “had lovely shoes” 10,000 years ago. They consisted of leather wrappings with grass insulation during the cold weather. “If the shoes got damp and the person wore them often enough, that could have encouraged athlete’s foot,” he explains.

caveman shoe

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Was Prehistoric Athlete’s Foot Fatal?

The worst case of athlete’s foot wouldn’t have been enough to kill a man, but it could have stopped cavemen from tracking prey and migrating. Without the antifungal creams and sprays of today, it would have been difficult to endure the itching and burning. However, herbal natural remedies would have been used by people who were in tune with their environment. “If you take the green parts of a juniper plant and boil them, the mix makes a wonderful fungicide that will work on athlete’s foot,” said outdoor survival skills instructor Cody Lundin.

Modern Man Has Many More Tools To Prevent Tinea Pedis.

Today, modern man can use the SteriShoe UV shoe sanitizer on his footwear to kill up to 99.9% of the fungus that causes athlete’s foot in just 45 minutes. If only the cavemen had that kind of technology!


*Side Note: If you haven’t been to this NYC museum, it’s a must! The vast arsenal of ancient human remains is mind-boggling. It’s one thing to look at a 75 million year old velociraptor bone… and quite another to look at a human bone from 7,000 years ago.

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