Because hair naturally becomes matted when it isn't styled or combed, prehistoric humans must have worn their hair in a style similar to dreadlocks, until they invented combs and other utensils. Dreadlocks have been discovered on mummies in Peru, dating back to sometime between A.D. 200 and A.D. 800, and Aztec priests dating back to the 14th and 15th centuries traditionally wore their hair in matted locks.
Often, dreadlocks become a symbol of religious devotion, an ascetic's vow not to alter God's creation through grooming. In Ethiopia, priests in Christian Coptic churches have worn dreadlocks for hundreds of years. In India, the "sadhu" sect of Hinduism wears matted locks in tribute to the long-haired deity Shiva. "Rasta-Buddhists" in Japan, members of the black Muslim Baye Fall sect of Senegal, Maori in New Zealand, and tribes in Namibia and Angola all wear dreadlocks [source: Mastalia].
But by far, the most recognizable group to wear dreadlocks is Jamaica's Rastafarians. The Rastafari movement began in the 1930s in Jamaica, as a small sect that believed that Haile Selassie I, who became the emperor of Ethiopia in 1930, was the Messiah.
Rastas see dreadlocks as a way to keep themselves in a pure state of nature as God intended. They use the Biblical story of Samson, and his vow never to cut his hair, as justification. Rastas tend to wear freeform locks, allowing them to grow in random lengths, and even combine together to form large matted clumps. They also refuse to wash their dreads, except with pure water.
The beliefs of Rastafari are also heavily rooted in the idea of Africa as a paradise, and the West as a place of captivity. So, the idea of freeing the hair from European ideals of beauty is a way of celebrating that ethnic pride. Rastas began wearing dreadlocks throughout the late 1950s and 1960s, but there are competing historical explanations for their adoption of the hairstyle and its name. The Rastas may have been inspired by a Kenyan tribe called the Mau Mau who wore matted locks and rebelled against the British in the 1950s, or by poverty stricken Jamaican homeless whose hair grew matted on its own. The term "dread" may have come from the reaction of British rebels to the Mau Mau fighters, or from Jamaican Rastas who imagined themselves as instilling fear in the hearts of non-believers.
In the early days of the movement, Rastas faced persecution and imprisonment in Jamaica. But their religion and hair style has become more widely accepted, largely thanks to the success of the most famous dreadlock wearer of them all: Bob Marley [source: Barrett, Price, Mastalia].