African Origins

Cornrow braids are not only widespread in Africa, but they are also quite ancient. Cornrow hairstyles in Africa cover a wide social terrain: religion, kinship, status, age, ethnicity, and other attributes of identity can all be expressed in hairstyle. Just as important is the act of braiding; it transmits cultural values between generations, expresses bonds between friends, and establishes the role of professional practitioner. It might seem tempting to look at the original African styles as more "natural," and our computer geometry models as more artificial, but stylized geometric models of cornrows are quite traditional to Africa.

This clay sculpture with cornrows is from the ancient Nok civilization of Nigeria. It may be as old as 500 BCE. As Peters (1990) notes in her essay on black hairstyle history: "Hieroglyphs and sculptures dating back thousands of years illustrate the attention Africans have paid to their hair. Braids were etched into the back of the head of the majestic sphinx."

A Mende woman wearing traditional African braids. Rebecca Busselle, who took this photo in the 1970s, notes: "As westerners, it is difficult for us to appreciate the communicative power that Mende attribute to women’s hair."

As we can see in this traditional Mende sculpture, mathematics is also a traditional part of African hairstyles.