Discovering the Roots of Afro Hair Braiding: A Cultural and Historical Overview of Braiding Styles


Braiding has been a beloved tradition for thousands of years, practiced by people all over the world. While some styles can be traced back to specific cultural groups, the custom of braiding is universal. It’s a lot like a fairy tale, as its origins are difficult to pin down.

The oldest evidence of braids can be seen on the Venus of Willendorf, a 25,000 to 30,000-year-old Palaeolithic female figurine discovered in Austria in the early 20th century. Her head is adorned with rows of plaits, and it is thought that she represents a fertility goddess. The Venus of Brassemouy, a similar ivory figurine discovered in France in 1892, also wears cornrows.

From 3000 BC onwards, art depicting braided figures has been found on all continents. Braiding was often seen as a social art in many traditions, where the braider and “braidee” formed bonds during the activity. Entire communities would often braid each other’s hair. In some cultures, children were expected to practice braiding on their younger siblings and progress to more complex styles on each other and adults as they grew older.

From the historical evidence available to us, it is evident that braiding has never just been a hairstyle to those who practiced it. It is a skill and an art form that is often integral to culture and community.

Afro hair braiding has a rich history and cultural significance, with evidence suggesting that it started with the Himba people in what is now modern-day Namibia. Braiding patterns were used to identify tribe, age, wealth, marital status, and religion across the African continent. The intricate braiding could take days to complete and often included extensions made of natural materials.

For contemporary Himba women, hair and power are still synonymous. Hair is still styled with pastes made from shrubs mixed with animal fat and a pigmented stone, which are used to cover sections of the hair to resemble deep red clay locs. Other hair sections are braided into distinctive designs.

Cornrows are a common and varied style that has been popular among groups in the West coasts of the African continent as well as the Eastern Horn of Africa from at least 3000B.C. Notable warriors and kings in 19th century Ethiopia were depicted wearing cornrows. A particular set of techniques results in a raised row on the head, which places a style firmly in the cornrow family.

Ghana braids are a disputed subcategory of cornrows. They are known for starting small and growing larger, incorporating more hair into the plait, therefore ending up with a larger design. Typically, the ends are not adorned with beads or other accessories, and it is common to wear the braids in an up-do or ponytail.

Fulani braids, also known as feed-in braids, can be traced directly to the Fula people of the Sahel and West African region. This style is distinctive for one cornrow braided down the middle of the head, some towards the face and often a braid around the hairline, with long braids that hang on the sides of the head. Beads or shells are often incorporated in the ends.

Box braids get their name from the square-shaped divisions of hair on the scalp. Box braiding was common amongst various peoples of the Eastern African Nile Valley as well as groups in the South East of the continent in modern-day Namibia and South Africa. Box braids aren’t braided along the scalp, so they have been styled in variable ways depending on the culture, norms, and traditions of the people wearing them.

Bantu knots are a hairstyle where sections of hair are twisted and wrapped around itself to form a protruding knot shape. The shape of the knot is determined by how long the hair or extensions are and can be twisted into a funnel for long hair or hair with extensions. Box braids can be twisted up into Bantu knots, then let down again at night and worn in a bonnet for easier sleeping.

While braiding can be great as a protective style, it’s important to take care of your hair and avoid putting yourself at risk of traction alopecia. Afrocenchix has put together a dedicated Braid Care Set to help you take care of your hair and keep it nourished.

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