Hair played a significant role in the culture of ancient African civilizations. It symbolized one’s family background, social status, spirituality, tribe, and marital status.
As early as the 15th century, different tribes used hair to show one’s social hierarchy. Members of royalty wore elaborate hairstyles as a symbol of their stature.
Hair was also a symbol of fertility. If a person’s hair was thick, long, and neat, it symbolized that one was able to bear healthy children. If someone were in mourning, they would pay very little attention to their hair.
With hair being an elevated part of one’s body, ancient communities believed that it helped with divine communication. This belief is the reason why hair styling was entrusted to close relatives. People thought that if a strand of hair fell into the hands of an enemy, harm could come to the hair’s owner.
Hair was a prominent social activity, especially among women. People had the opportunity to socialize while styling each other’s hair. The communal tradition of hair still exists today.
Africa is rich with ancient hair traditions and styles. Here’s a history of notable hairstyles and hair traditions from across the continent.
Dreadlocks from the Himba tribe of Northwestern Namibia
For the Himba tribe, hair indicates one’s age, life stage, and marital status. The tribe lives in the northwestern region of Namibia.
Tribe members use a mixture of ground ochre, goat hair, and butter to create their dreadlocks. They also include hair extensions when weaving their dreadlocks.
Teenage girls wear braid strands or dreadlocked hair that hangs over their faces. Doing this symbolizes that they’ve entered into puberty.
Married women and new mothers wear Erembe headdresses made from animal skin. Young women who are ready for marriage tie their dreadlocks to reveal their faces.
Unmarried men wear a single braid to show their status. Once they get married, they cover their heads never to unveil them in public again. They remove their head covering at funerals only.
Braids and beads from the Fulani tribe of the Sahel region and West Africa
The Fula, or Fulani tribe, is the largest nomadic tribe in the world. They populate the Sahel region and West Africa.
The tribe’s traditional hairstyle is a big trend in contemporary braiding. Hair stylists have named it Fulani braids.
Women plait their hair into five long braids that they hang or loop on the side of their heads. They complete the hairstyle with a coiffure in the middle of the head. They decorate their hair with beads and cowrie shells.
Young girls attach their family’s silver coins and amber on their braids as a heritage symbol. They also add coins and amber for aesthetic purposes. This tradition is one that families have kept through the generations.
Braids and beads from the Wodaabe tribe of the Sahel region and West Africa
The Wodaabe tribe is a subgroup of the Fulani tribe that also resides in the Sahel region and West Africa. They are a pastoral nomadic tribe with an estimated population of 100,000.
Wodaabe girls and women wear their hair like their Fulani counterparts. They plait a few braids on their hair and add a coiffure in the middle.
They decorate their hair with beads and cowrie shells.
Ochre dreadlocks of the Hamar tribe in Ethiopia
The Hamar tribe is a pastoral community that lives in Ethiopia’s Omo Valley. The tribe has an estimated population of 20,000.
Hamar women wear thin ochre dreadlocks, called goscha, on their hair. They create their dreadlocks by binding water with resin. To add to their distinct look, women wear colorful beaded jewelry.
Pre-adolescent girls wear their hair in cornrows that they decorate with beads.