top of page

Bantu Knots, Cornrows, and Afros: A Look at Historic African Hairstyles

Image Credit: Allure

African hairstyles, known for their complex designs and deep cultural importance, have played a crucial role in African heritage for many generations. Notable styles such as Bantu knots, cornrows, and Afros are significant not only as historical indicators of African identity but also as representations of the continent's vast cultural diversity. This article investigates the historical background, cultural meaning, and lasting influence of these distinctive hairstyles. It delves into how these styles have been used to signify social status, age, marital status, and even tribal affiliations. Additionally, the article examines how these hairstyles have evolved and adapted over time, reflecting changes in society and culture. The enduring popularity of Bantu knots, cornrows, and Afros highlights their role in cultural expression and identity formation within and beyond the African continent. Through these hairstyles, individuals express not just personal style but also connect with a rich heritage and a shared history.


Bantu knots, a hairstyle emanating from the Bantu people of southern Africa, signify much more than a mere fashion statement. The term 'Bantu' encompasses a wide array of over 400 distinct ethnic groups across Africa, each with its unique culture and language. The creation of Bantu knots involves dividing hair into several sections and then coiling these segments into tight, compact buns. Traditionally, these knots were not only a practical solution for keeping hair tidy and protected but also acted as indicators of an individual's tribal affiliation and marital status. In many African cultures, the specific style of the knots could communicate various aspects of a person's identity, such as their clan, age, wealth, or social standing. These hairstyles were a visual language in themselves, revealing intricate details about the wearer's background and position within their community. The cultural importance of Bantu knots is a testament to the rich heritage and diversity within African societies. This hairstyle, beyond its practicality and beauty, serves as a bridge connecting individuals to their ancestral roots and cultural identity.


Cornrows, a hairstyle deeply rooted in African tradition, boast a rich history that spans thousands of years across numerous African cultures. This distinctive style is achieved by braiding the hair very close to the scalp, using an underhand, upward technique, and creating linear raised rows that mirror the appearance of crop rows in a field, which is the origin of their name. Cornrows were not merely a practical approach to hair management; they represented a form of artistic expression and a method of social communication. In various African societies, the specific patterns and designs of cornrows were indicative of different life stages, age groups, or social ranks. Beyond their cultural significance in Africa, cornrows have played a pivotal role in the African diaspora. They have come to symbolise a resistance to conforming to Western beauty standards and a reclamation of African heritage. This hairstyle serves as a powerful statement of identity and cultural pride, reflecting the resilience and enduring spirit of the African diaspora. Through cornrows, individuals connect with their roots and celebrate their heritage, making a profound statement about their identity and the richness of African culture.

Image Credit: iStock


The Afro, characterised by hair in its natural, tightly coiled state styled into a rounded silhouette, gained significant popularity during the 1960s and 1970s, particularly amidst the Black Power movement. This hairstyle transcended mere fashion trends to become a potent symbol of resistance against Eurocentric beauty norms, a celebration of Black beauty, and an embrace of natural African hair textures. The Afro's significance extends well into African history, representing the untouched, inherent beauty of African hair.

The Afro hairstyle emerged not only as a fashion choice but also as a political statement, advocating for racial pride and cultural identity. Its popularity during the civil rights era marked a period of empowerment and self-acceptance among African Americans. Today, the Afro continues to hold cultural and historical significance, symbolising a connection to African heritage and serving as a statement of self-acceptance and defiance against conventional beauty standards. The hairstyle's enduring appeal reflects its ability to convey messages of solidarity, strength, and cultural pride, making it more than just a way of styling hair but a symbol of a broader cultural and historical narrative.


In the modern era, African hairstyles like Bantu knots, cornrows, and Afros have evolved beyond their traditional origins, emerging as powerful symbols of empowerment and cultural pride. These styles are widely embraced by people of African descent around the globe, serving as a means to celebrate and connect with their heritage. Yet, these distinctive hairstyles have also found themselves at the heart of cultural appropriation discussions. Such debates underscore the importance of respecting and recognising the rich cultural histories and significance these hairstyles hold.

The global popularity of these hairstyles has brought them into mainstream fashion, but it's crucial to acknowledge their roots in African culture. When these styles are adopted by those outside the African community, they raise important conversations about respect, identity, and cultural sensitivity. These discussions are vital for fostering a broader understanding and appreciation of the cultural contexts behind these hairstyles. Embracing these styles should come with an awareness of their cultural significance and an effort to honour the traditions and histories they represent. In doing so, these hairstyles can be appreciated not just for their beauty and style but also as a bridge to deeper cultural understanding and respect.

Image Credit: The Guardian Nigeria


Safeguarding these traditional African hairstyles is vital for the continued celebration and recognition of Africa's rich cultural heritage. The expertise and techniques involved in creating styles like Bantu knots, cornrows, and Afros have historically been handed down through generations within families and communities. This intergenerational transmission of knowledge is a key aspect of preserving cultural practices and identities.

In contemporary times, the preservation of these hairstyling skills is being furthered through formal education and professional hairstyling avenues. Hairstyling schools, workshops, and salons are increasingly incorporating these traditional techniques into their curricula and services. This approach not only ensures that these skills are kept alive but also enables their adaptation to modern fashion trends, broadening their appeal. Additionally, the professionalisation of these hairstyles helps in elevating their status in the global beauty industry, acknowledging their cultural significance and artistic value. Through these efforts, traditional African hairstyles are not only maintained as a link to the past but also as a vibrant and evolving part of contemporary culture. Their ongoing popularity and adaptation reflect a dynamic dialogue between tradition and modernity, ensuring that the rich heritage they embody continues to be celebrated and respected.

Ultimately, Bantu knots, cornrows, and Afros are not merely hairstyles but are deeply embedded in African history and culture. They represent the beauty, diversity, and resilience of African people and their diaspora. These hairstyles are a testament to the rich cultural tapestry of Africa and serve as a source of inspiration and pride for generations. Understanding the history and significance of these hairstyles is essential in appreciating their beauty and cultural importance fully.

bottom of page