Hair played a significant role in the culture of ancient African civilisations as it symbolised one’s family background, social status, spirituality, tribe, and marital status.
As early as the 15th century, hair was the main disseminator among different tribes and within communities of marital status, age, wealth, and rank on the social hierarchy within a community or tribe. Members of royalty would often wear elaborate hairstyles as a symbol of their stature, and someone in mourning, usually women, would pay little attention to their hair during the period of grieving. Hair was seen as a symbol of fertility as thick, long tresses and neat, clean hair symbolised one’s ability to bear healthy children.
Ancient communities believed that hair could help with divine communication as it was the elevated part of one’s body. It’s also why hair was entrusted to close relatives for styling as it was believed that if a strand fell into the hands of an enemy, harm could come to the hair’s owner.
Hair was also a social activity, as it still is today, as women gathered to do each other’s hair and had opportunities to socialise.
With so much tradition and different hairstyles that came from earlier African civilisations, here’s a history of some of the most notable hairstyles and hair traditions from across the continent.
Dreadlocks from the Himba Tribe of Northwestern Namibia
For the Himba Tribe, whose communities are located in the northwestern region of Namibia, hair indicates one’s age, life stage, and marital status. Hair is often dreadlocked with a mixture of ground ochre, goat hair and butter. In modern times, Indian hair extensions purchased from nearby towns has been included in creating dreadlocks.
A teenage girl who has entered puberty would usually wear braid strands or dreadlocked hair that hangs over her face, and a married woman and a new mom would wear an Erembe headdress made from animal skin over her head. A young woman who is ready to marry would tie back her dreadlocks, revealing her face. Interestingly, single men wear a single plaid to indicate their unmarried status, and once they marry, they cover their heads never to unveil them in public again, with the exception of funeral attendances.
Braids and beads from the Fulani Tribe of the Sahel Region and West Africa
The Fula, or Fulani Tribe, is the largest nomadic pastoral community in the world that populate West Africa and the Sahel Region.
A very traditional hairstyle for women includes long hair being put into five long braids that either hang or are looped on the sides, with a coiffure in the middle of the head. Hair is decorated with beads and cowrie shells. A tradition that is passed through the generations to women and young girls includes attaching the family’s silver coins and amber onto braids as a heritage symbol as well as for aesthetic purposes.
Braids and beads from the Wodaabe Tribe of the Sahel Region and West Africa
The Wodaabe Tribe is a subgroup of the Fulani Tribe, also residing in the Sahel Region and West Africa. They are a pastoral nomadic tribe with an estimated population of 100,000. The young girls and women of the tribe wear a braided hairstyle similar to Fulani women, consisting of two braids on either side of the head or a few braids on their hair and a coiffure in the middle. The hair is usually decorated with beads and cowrie shells.
Ochre dreadlocks of the Hamar Tribe in Ethiopia
The Hamar Tribe is a pastoral community with an estimated population of 20,000 that live in Ethiopia’s Omo Valley. Women are often adorned with colourful beaded jewellery, and they mostly wear their hair in thin ochre dreadlocks that are created with water and binding resin. The twisted tresses are known as goscha. Pre-adolescent girls wear their hair in cornrows that are decorated with beads.