Hair and grooming have always played an important role in the culture of Africa and the African Diaspora. The traditional African comb or pick has played a crucial role in the creation, maintenance, and decoration of hair-styles for both men and women.
In many African societies, ancient and modern, the hair comb symbolises status, group affiliation, and religious beliefs, and is encoded with ritual properties. The handles of combs are decorated with objects of status, such as the headrest, human figures, and motifs that reference nature and the traditional spiritual world.
In the twentieth century ‘afro’ combs have taken on a wider political and cultural message, perhaps most notably in the form of the ‘black fist’ comb that references the Black power salute.
By looking at archaeological records of burials, and through recording oral histories in modern societies it is hoped the project will provide a much better understanding of the status of this iconic object and the spiritual and societal status it can hold. This project aims to trace the history and the meaning of the African hair comb over a period of 5500 years in Africa, through to its re-emergence amongst the Diaspora in the Americas, Britain and the Caribbean.
- The earliest African hair comb that we know of is 5500 years old.
- African people have been wearing their hair combs in their hair for thousands of years.
- Many people with natural hair don’t use a hair comb they simply use their fingers to de-tangle hair.
- That the handles of many hair combs contain political, religious or cultural references.
- Between 1970 and 1980 thirteen afro combs were patented in the USA.
Selected Further Reading
- J.A. Antiri, ‘Akan combs’, in African Arts 8 (No. 1 Autumn 1974), 32-35.
- S-A. Ashton, ‘Ancient Egyptian Hair combs in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge’, in Under the Potter’s Tree. D. Aston, B. Bader, C. Gallorini, P. Nicholson and S. Buckingham (eds.) Studies on Ancient Egypt presented to Janine Bourriau on the occasion of her 70th birthday. Orientalia Lovaniensia Analecta 204 (Leuven 2011), 19-44.
- C. Martín del Río Álvarez and E. Almenara Rosales, ‘An analysis of the theriomorphic respresentations on combs and hairpins from the Predynastic period’, 884, in S. Hendrickx, R.F. Friedman, K.M. Ciałowicz (eds.) Egypt at its Origins. Studies in Memory of Barbara Adams, Orientalia Lovaniensia Analecta 138 (Leuven 2004), 883-89.
- R. Sieber and F. Herreman (eds.) Hair in African Art and Culture (New York 2000).
- C. Tulloch, ‘Resounding power of the Afro comb’, 124-25, in G. Biddle-Perry and S. Cheang (eds.) Hair styling culture and fashion (New York 2008), 128-39.
Data included within this website comes from: