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Article: The history of dreadlocks

The history of dreadlocks

Dreadlocks, also known as locs or dreads, are rope-like strands of hair formed by matting which is done by not combing the hair and allowing the hair to matt naturally or by twisting hair and overtime the twisted hair will form into matted locs.


The topic of hair in many religions and cultures is a powerful and very important one that can represent a great deal spiritually, much more so than simply the physical appearance, but also representing signs of respect, modesty, independence, anarchy, obedience, and personality.

The showing or not showing off the hair can be imbued with many different interpretations across religions and cultures, and the hairstyle of dreadlocks is one that has meanings beyond what is superficially a protective one.

The dreadlock, or certainly allusions to this style of twisted hair, can be traced back thousands of years, with Egyptian royalty having been unearthed with this hairstyle still intact and visible.

Twisted locks of one form or another, though, have been recorded going back into the Bronze and Iron Ages, so it is difficult to pinpoint exactly where they initially came from.


Dreadlocks have a long history in Africa. Victoria Sherrow, the author of the Encyclopedia of Hair, A Cultural History 1, named the priests of the Ethiopian Coptic Orthodox Church as some of the first people to have sported dreadlocks in Africa, as early as 500 BCE. However, due to the texture of African hair, many historians believe that dreads might have originated in the area long before this.

Africa is a vast continent that is populated by several tribes, many of whom wore dreads during the earlier days as well as today. Dreads have been worn historically by different shamans and warriors in Africa who adorned their hair with beads and other objects and colored it to make it their own.

For example, the Maasai people who inhibited Kenya and northern Tanzania wore locks which were often colored with red dyes to differentiate them from other tribes. Some children in Nigeria are even said to be born with dread-like hair, referred to as “Dada.” The Akan, who is believed to have originated in Ghana long before 500 AD, also wore a hairstyle that resembles dreads, known as the Mpɛsɛ.


Egypt has a rich history of dreadlocks dating back to as far as 3100 BC. Ancient Egyptian sculptures, statues, and other archeological discoveries in the region over the years have provided evidence of dreadlocks’ historical roots in ancient Egypt. Examples of this are statues of Hyksos that have been unearthed at Tanis, which is situated in the north-eastern Nile Delta of Egypt. The Hyksos were a diverse group of people who are believed to have settled in Egypt during 1782 BCE.

Mummies excavated from Egyptian tombs by archaeologists can also be seen wearing hairstyles that resembled dreadlocks. In 1901, French Egyptologist Georges Daressy, added to Egypt’s rich dreadlock history with the discovery of a mummy who is believed to be Maiherperi, an Egyptian noble who was assumed to have lived during 1400 BC.

Dreadlocks are also believed to have been the hairstyle of choice for Egyptian Pharaohs. Many historians believed that locs were used to represent a level of esteem and power. Pharaohs, for instance, were thought to have worn dreads that were heavily adorned with jewelry and other objects to signify their wealth.


Many historians believe that India can be credited for the religious origins of dreadlocks. In fact, the Hindu Holy Scriptures, The Vedas, which was written in Indian between 1500 and 1000 BCE, provides the first written historical evidence of dreadlocks. Historically, in Indian culture, locks were widely regarded as sacred by Hindu holy men and signified their willingness to disregard vanity for their god.

The Hindu deity, Shiva, is also described in many scriptures as wearing dreadlocks, which is referred to as “jatta.” The story of Ganga, the Hindu goddess of purification and the Ganges River, is one of the most notable narratives that have a mention of Shiva wearing dreadlocks. Hindus believe that Shiva released water through his “locks of hair” to prevent Earth’s destruction.  Some of Shiva’s followers throughout history are also believed to have worn dreadlocks, which were often kept up and only let down for religious events.

The Dravidian peoples were also believed to have worn dreadlocks. Whether they were indigenous to India as many believed or settled there from Africa, it is assumed that they emulated the Hindu holy men (or Sadhus) and wore dreads, as Rastafarians do today.


Today dreadlocks are not often associated with Asian territories; however, the hairstyle arguably also has historical roots in different parts of Asia. In Tibetan Buddhism (and some other variations of Buddhism), dreadlocks are believed to have been a popular substitute to the traditional bald head that was worn for religious reasons. The Ngagpas of Tibet, who devoted their lives to carrying out birth rituals and other religious practices, wore dreads as a sign of their spirituality. Much like Hinduism, dreadlocks in Buddhism symbolizes nonconformity to vanity.

Many people also overlook the fact that Israel is located in Western Asia and also has a rich history of dreadlocks. Like Hinduism and Buddhism, dreadlocks can also be linked to Judaism, which originated in Israel during the Iron Age. In ancient Jerusalem, Jewish priests (referred to as Cohens) who performed sacrificial offerings and other religious rituals were not permitted to shave their heads or comb it. Many historians believe that they wore their hair in dreads, largely because they were not allowed to pass iron through it, although some may have found their way around this.

Nazarites also avoided cutting their hair for religious reasons. These individuals who consecrated their lives to God vowed never to shave their heads. Their hair signified their vow and respect to god. Samson was a popular Nazarite who was believed to have his strength in his seven locks.


Another set of Europeans who believed to have sported dreadlocks were the Irishmen. Historically Irish men and women wore their hair long and loose, especially women, who saw this as a symbol of their beauty. However, medieval Irish warriors wore a hairstyle referred to as the Glib, which was described as “thick matted hair on the forehead and all over the eyes.”

Shakespeare also made reference to Irishmen wearing elf locks or fairy-locks and made mention of the knots in their hair, which was left uncombed because of bad luck. The term fairy-locks originated in the mid to late-1500s and is what many believe is known as dreadlocks today. In English folklore, fairy-locks were thought to have been the result of fairies knotting and tangling the hair of sleeping children at nights. However, while there have not been substantial archeological findings to support the argument that Irishmen wore dreads, it is clear that they sported a hairstyle of similar nature.


In Poland, a hairstyle which resembles dreadlocks, known as the Polish plait, was very popular centuries ago. Historians believe that these plaits were common during the periods when hair grooming was highly neglected. Polish men and women were believed to have left their hair ungroomed until they formed large plaits that were believed to have warded off certain illnesses from the body. While these plaits were not viewed as modern dreadlocks, numerous historical drawings of polish men have shown them wearing hairstyles that resemble dreads.


Today dreadlocks are worn by numerous cultures, though one of the most popular depictions comes from the famous Jamaican reggae artist Bob Marley. He greatly aided in the popularization of dreadlocks with masterful, internationally adored reggae music.

A number of the dreadlock trends that have erupted today have sparked the debate of cultural appropriation and who has the right to wear the hairstyle. Because historians have been unable to pinpoint the origins of dreadlocks, it’s almost impossible to say which particular culture has the right to wear the “we wore it first” engraved crown. 

While it’s more prominent in black culture today, historians have proven that dreadlocks have an extensive history, but with no specific origin to pinpoint as the originators.


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