Are dreads African?

The origins of dreadlocks have been widely debated, with many believing they originated in Africa. Let’s take a closer look at the evidence surrounding the history of dreadlocks to determine if they truly have African roots.

What are Dreadlocks?

Dreadlocks are a hairstyle where the hair is washed but not combed. This causes the strands to knot and matt together into rope-like locks. Dreadlocks can form naturally but are often started by backcombing or twisting the hair while wet.

Once formed, dreadlocks are often left to grow freely. They are sometimes referred to as “dreads” or “locs”. The term “dreadlocks” comes from the Rastafarian culture, where having locs is seen as a spiritual journey. However, dreadlocks have been worn by many cultures throughout history.

Early Origins in Africa

There is evidence that early Africans may have worn dreadlocks as far back as 2500 BCE. Ancient Egypt hieroglyphics and carvings show Egyptians with locked hairstyles. Examples include:

  • A statue of the pharaoh Akhenaten (circa 1352–1336 BCE) shows him with thick, matted locks.
  • Drawings of Minoan Cretans from 1500 BCE display individuals with dreadlock hair.
  • The mummified remains of ancient Egyptians have been found with intact dreadlocks.

Early Africans such as the Maasai warriors and Ethiopians wore a hairstyle known as “chinlocks” that was very similar to modern dreadlocks. Their hair naturally knotted and formed locks from lack of combing and contact with cow’s milk and red clay.

Dreadlocks in Ancient India

There is also evidence that ancient Hindu ascetics known as sadhus wore their hair in thick dreadlocks called “jaTaa” or “zilla” in India over 3,000 years ago. Hindu scriptures describe gods and goddesses with matted hair, and dreadlocks are connected to the Hindu deity Shiva.

So dreadlocks seem to have roots not just in Africa but in early India as well. It’s likely the hairstyle developed in multiple cultures independently.

Dreadlocks in Africa Today

Many African ethnic groups still integrate dreadlocks into their culture today. Here are some examples:

Ethnic Group Dreadlock Tradition
Maasai Wear thin dreadlocks called “oris” that are stained with red ocher.
Himba Wear thick dreadlocks molded with otjize paste (butterfat, ocher).
Fulani Style hair into chinlocks or flat locks.
Wolof Wear locks tightened with palm oil and red ocher.

As we can see, many groups integrate locks into tribal customs, coming-of-age rituals, beauty standards, and spiritual practices.

Rastafarian Dreadlocks

Perhaps the most well-known dreadlocked culture is that of the Rastafarians. Rastas wear locks for spiritual and symbolic reasons. For them, dreadlocks represent:

  • The mane of the Lion of Judah (a symbol of Emperor Haile Selassie I who they consider divine)
  • Their natural, untreated African roots
  • Spiritual journey and commitment to the Nazarite vow
  • Rejection of Babylon/Western oppression

Rastas point to the Nazarites of the Bible who wore their hair in locks as inspiration. While not associated specifically with Africa, Rastafarian dreadlocks helped popularize the style in Western culture.

Cultural Appropriation Debate

As dreadlocks gained popularity among white hippies and celebrities in the 1970s, a debate emerged. Some argue white people wearing locs constitutes cultural appropriation.

Reasons cited include:

  • Locks have deep roots in black culture and spirituality.
  • Black people with locks still face stigma and discrimination that whites do not.
  • Whites often don’t honor the history and meaning behind dreadlocks.

However, others argue dreadlocks cannot be claimed by one culture and have been worn globally for centuries. There are also legal concerns that banning dreadlocks by race could be discriminatory.

The debate continues today with many viewpoints on both sides.


In summary, the evidence seems to indicate that early forms of dreadlocks originated independently in both ancient Africa and India. Dreadlocks play an important spiritual and cultural role for many African ethnic groups and societies even today.

So dreadlocks do have significant roots in African culture, although they’re not exclusive to it. There are certainly strong historical and social associations between dreadlocks and black identity. But there are also arguments that dreadlocks transcend any one culture. There may not be a definitive answer to who can “own” dreadlocks.

In the end, hair is deeply personal and intertwined with both history and identity. The origins of dreadlocks are complex, and so are the debates surrounding them in modern times. Understanding the background of this hairstyle can hopefully lead to meaningful conversations and progress.

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