Dreadlocks have become a popular hairstyle around the world, worn by people of different cultures and backgrounds. Often associated with the Rastafari movement or hippie subculture, dreadlocks have a long and complex history. An enduring question is – did this iconic hairstyle actually originate in Africa? Getting to the roots of dreadlocks requires an examination of hair in ancient world cultures, the evolution of hairstyling traditions across continents, and the complexities of cultural exchange and appropriation. While the exact origins are debated, there is evidence pointing to ancient African cultures as forerunners of modern dreadlocks. However, dreadlocks have emerged in various forms globally throughout history. Their origins and spread reflect broader patterns of cultural connection and exchange.
What are dreadlocks?
Dreadlocks, also known as locs or dreads, are created by allowing hair to mat and tangle together into rope-like strands. The matted coils are tight and compressed, creating dense locks of hair. Dreadlocks form through a process of neglect, by avoiding brushing, combing, or otherwise manipulating the hair. This allows strands to knot and fuse together. Some methods also encourage dreadlocks to form more quickly, like backcombing (repeatedly combing and teasing hair into knots) or twisting hair while wet. However dreads are formed initially, the hairstyle is maintained by allowing new growth to integrate into the locks over time. The choice to wear dreadlocked hair carries personal and cultural meaning for many around the world.
Origins in ancient Africa
Archaeological evidence and artistic depictions from ancient Egypt suggest early African cultures wore naturally forming dreadlocks. Mummified remains show Egyptians with locked hairstyles as early as 1600 BCE. Frescoes and engravings also portray Egyptians wearing what appear to be dreadlocks. For example, a tomb relief of an Egyptian official dated between 1400-1200 BCE clearly depicts him wearing thick, matted strands of hair.
Ancient Egypt was not the only early African society where dreadlocked hair may have been common. The oldest known depictions of dreadlocks are Ellipoid Venus figurines from the Ituri region of central Africa. Dating back over 4,000 years, these stone carvings portray women wearing long ropes of clearly twisted or locked hair.
Early inhabitants of the Pacific Islands, Australia, and parts of East Asia also likely wore naturally matted hairstyles that could be considered an early form of dreadlocks. However, the most definitive evidence places original dreadlock styles firmly in ancient African cultures like Egypt and central Africa.
Spiritual and cultural significance
For many ancient African civilizations, dreadlocked hair held spiritual and social significance. Egyptian priests and holy people often wore dreadlocks, which signified spiritual devotion, wisdom, and high social status. Mummified remains suggest pharaohs may also have worn their hair in locks. For these ancient Africans, dreadlocks represented an untouched and natural state which held sacred meaning.
The spiritual and symbolic importance of dreadlocked hair passed from ancient African cultures into modern religious movements. Most famously, dreadlocks became deeply meaningful for Rastafarians in the 20th century Caribbean. Rasta locks represent spirituality, Black identity, and rejection of Babylonian (Euro-centric) cultural domination. Dreadlocks remain central to Rastafarian culture today.
Beyond religious meaning, dreadlocks have served as an expression of ethnic pride for African cultures over the centuries. Much like African braiding traditions, locked hair affirms a shared cultural heritage and identity among African-descended groups. Dreadlocks connect Black communities across generations, from ancient African civilizations to the African diaspora today.
Cultural diffusion and exchange
While early evidence clearly points to African cultures, dreadlocks have also emerged in a variety of societies over history. This demonstrates how hairstyling methods, like other cultural elements, diffuse and spread between cultures over time.
For instance, locked or matted hair has been part of South Asian religious culture for centuries, particularly among holy Sadhus. The shared spiritual meaning of dreadlocks across continents shows how cultures can develop similar traditions independently.
There are also many well-documented historical interactions that could explain dreadlocks arising in different cultures. The borders of ancient African empires extended across the Middle East, providing direct cultural exchange routes. The trans-Saharan trades of gold, salt and slaves facilitated cultural diffusion across Africa itself.
Later, the Atlantic slave trade brought millions of Africans along with their cultural practices to the Americas between the 1500s and 1800s. African hairstyles like cornrows and dreadlocks were maintained by slaves as cultural identity markers in the New World.
In these complex historical interactions, we find clues to how iconic African hairstyles like dreadlocks ultimately spread around the globe.
While cultural diffusion, assimilation, and exchange are natural social processes, power imbalances complicate the cross-cultural sharing of minority cultural elements like dreadlocks. The line between cultural appreciation and inappropriate cultural appropriation is not always clear. However, history provides some important lessons.
For African slaves and their descendants, dreadlocks held deep personal and spiritual significance along with ethnic pride. Meanwhile, the dominant white society systematically oppressed Black identity and traditions. Within this unequal power dynamic, whites wearing locs has often represented cultural appropriation, not neutral cultural exchange.
A clear example was in the early 1900s when white artists, musicians, and bohemians adopted traditionally Black hairstyles like afros and dreadlocks. This “exotic” fashion statement exploited Black culture, yet dreds remained socially unacceptable for Blacks themselves.
Today, power imbalances persist, and minority groups have called for ethical engagement with their cultural symbols, urging against superficial appropriation by the dominant culture. Thoughtful adoption of dreds across ethnicities is possible, emphasizing respect and acknowledging the hairstyle’s history. However, cultural sensitivity remains vital.
Modern popularity and myths
While dreadlocks maintain religious and ethnic significance for groups like Rastafarians and African-Americans, locks have also gained mainstream popularity in many societies. Unfortunately, this wider appeal has also given rise to myths about dreadlock origins and cultural belonging.
Euro-centric narratives falsely trace modern dreadlocks to examples like:
– Ancient Celts and Vikings wearing “matted” hairstyles. However, surviving evidence shows Norse cultural practices focused on complex braiding, not matted locs.
– Nomadic groups like Scythians, Germanic tribes, and early Christians wearing naturally forming “shaggy” locks. However, unmaintained head hair differs greatly from deliberately cultivated dreadlocks.
– Hindu religious ascetics in South Asia wearing jaTaa dreadlocks. However, organized locs likely diffused to South Asia from ancient Egypt and Africa.
– Counter-culture hippies and mainstream celebrities popularizing dreadlocks since the 1960s. However, they appropriated the style from existing Black culture.
These myths universalize and whitewash dreadlocks, severing modern locs from their predominantly African cultural roots. While global cultures have exchanged and shared dreadlocked styles, authoritative evidence upholds the hairstyle’s origins in ancient African civilizations.
Did dreadlocks originate in Africa? Examining the evidence strongly suggests the earliest definite dreadlocked hairstyles emerged in ancient African civilizations like Egypt and central Africa over 4,000 years ago. Dreadlocks held both spiritual and cultural meaning for many African groups, which spread as cultural symbols with the African diaspora.
However, the global diffusion and reinvention of locked hairstyles also demonstrates the complexity of culture. Modern locs have become popular across ethnicities and regions, leading some to universalize dreadlocks as mere fashion. Nevertheless, respect for the deep cultural roots of dreadlocked hair remains important. This reflects broader needs for cultural sensitivity as styles, ideas, and identities increasingly intermix in a globalizing world.