A lot of people attribute dreadlocks solely to the Rastafarian religion, this couldn’t be further from the truth. The Rastafarian religion started in Jamaica in the 1930s, but there are historical references to dreadlocks found as far back as 6000 years. These references come from many different cultures including Egyptian, Indian and Mayan. This common misconception is largely due to Reggae music coming to Europe in the seventies, notably due to the popularity of Bob Marley and, as such, ususally the only culture in modern western society connected with dreads is Rastafarianism. As well as dating back far before the 1930s, since the Sixties, dreadlocks have been increasingly common among western subcultures such as New Age Travellers, Hippies and crusties.
As for the name Dreadlocks, it’s origins can be traced back to two possibilities. The first is from an ethnic rebel group in Kenya called the Mau Mau, who were fighting the British colonial oppressors from 1952-1960. The term dread was given to them by the British referring to how feared they were, and because the tribe hid for years in the forests their hair grew into thick locks. The resulting media coverage supposedly inspired rastas to wear locks and the name stuck.
Secondly, the first reference mentioned in Jamaican history of dreadlocks is by an early sect of Rasta called Young Black Faith in the 1950s when the members stopped wearing their hair in the same style as Haile Salassie and started wearing locks instead. It was said the person lived a dread life or a life in which they feared god, giving dread a positive religious connotation. As regards to which theory is correct it’s entirely possible they both are, although the latter may have arisen to give the name a positive meaning rather than a negative one, this is only speculation.
Rastas maintain that wearing dreadlocks is supported by two quotes Leviticus 21:5 “They shall not make baldness upon their head, neither shall they shave off the corner of their beard, nor make any cuttings in the flesh” if this quote is followed dogmatically a Rasta shouldn’t shave or have piercings. Secondly the Nazirite vow in Numbers 6:5 “All the days of the vow of his separation there shall no razor come upon his head .. . . and shall let the locks of the hair of his head grow”. This passage is also followed by Jewish Nazirite Ascetics who spend long amounts of time in solitude and grow locks, this is one of many sects of different religions that practice this.
Looking back to the earliest forms of dreadlocks, during pre-history before brushes, combs and conditioners were invented, we have to logically assume that prehistoric man’s hair would have naturally dreaded. The first in recorded history would have to be the Ancient Egyptian civilisation (3150 BC -31 AD). Archeological digs have produced many artefacts showing people wearing locks. For example, many mummified remains of Ancient Egyptians have been found to have locks as well, intact after millennia!
The Hindu (1000 BC -) Deity Shiva and his followers are described in the scriptures to wear twisted locks of hair. To this day the locks of Sadhus, Indian holy men, are sacred, considered to be a religious practice and an expression of their disregard for profane vanity, as well as a symbol of their spiritual understanding that physical appearances are unimportant.
African tribes have been wearing locks long before recorded history, many tribes have distinct styles. Such as the warriors of the Maasai tribe in Kenya famous for their long, thin, red dreadlocks.
In biblical times Saint James the Just, one of the twelve apostles, is described as having matted locks down to his ankles. As noted by Eusebius of Caesarea, in The Ecclesiastical History (book 2, chapter 23). Earlier in biblical history Samson describes his strength being linked to his locked hair, which has never been cut, “There hath not come a razor upon mine head; for I have been a Nazarite unto God from my mother’s womb: if I be shaven, then my strength will go from me, and I shall become weak, and be like any other man. And when Delilah saw that he had told her all…she made him sleep upon her knees; and she called for a man, and she caused him to shave off the seven locks of his head; and she began to afflict him, and his strength went from him.” (Judges 16:17-19, King James Version)
Emperor Hadrian is said to have described the Picts (now Scots) as barbarians with serpents for hair, although I haven’t found a reference to support it.
Lastly, priests of the Aztec civilisation (14th -16th century approx) are described in all three of the Aztec codices (the Durian Codex, Codex Tudela and Codex Menduza) as wearing their hair untouched, allowing it to grow long and matted.