Origins of the Afro Comb

Origins of the Afro Comb

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 20th 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.

Origins of the Afro CombBy 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 nearly 6000 years in Africa, through to its re-emergence amongst the Diaspora in the Americas, Britain and the Caribbean.

The University of Cambridge is staging a mayor exhibition exploring the 6,000-year history of the afro comb and the politics of black hair. The fascinating display charts the inception of the comb in Ancient Egypt through to its ascendancy as a political emblem post-1960s.


Image: Bone hair comb
About 3500-3000 BC
Ivory, 20.8 cms
Find-spot: Abydos Grave 78. The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

This bone hair comb is typical of the earliest combs found in Egypt, and is closest to more recent traditional African combs in its form with long teeth and wide gaps between. The handle is decorated with what appear to be bull’s horns, perhaps a sign of status or power. Combs functioned in early Egypt as status symbols and were found in rich graves. It is possible therefore that they were both functional and symbolic.

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