For centuries hair has been substantial in the formation of black identity and culture, in ancient Egypt braids and cornrows symbolised social rank and as early as the 15th century in Africa braids were an identifier, a way to distinguish age, marital status, kinship, rank et cetera. In 1970s, the Black Power and Black is Beautiful movements encouraged people to embrace their roots and natural hair texture by wearing cornrows and afros in lieu of chemically straightening their hair.
Although braids are a part of other hair cultures such as the Vikings, Native Americans and the Chinese, cornrows are largely associated with Africa, sometimes referred to as “African braids”. Depictions of women with cornrows have been found in Stone Age paintings in the Tassili Plateau of the Sahara dating as far back as 3000 BC  and as far back as 19th century for men, warriors and kings were identified by their braided hairstyles, particularly in Ethiopia. Every region or country and tribe in Africa has its own distinct style of hair braiding and may differ according to size, length, pattern and at times ornamentation.
During the Atlantic slave trade, slaves were forced to shave their heads supposedly for sanitary reasons but with the psychological impact of being stripped of one’s culture and identity. However, not all the slaves kept their hair short, many of them began to braid their hair again to remain connected to their culture and to keep hair tidy while working on plantations, re-establishing traditional hairstyles was also an act of resistance for the enslaved Africans.
Slaves also used cornrows to transfer and create maps to leave plantations and the sites of their captors and this is said to have been most evident across South America.
Ziomara Asprilla Garcia, explained to the Washington Post in the article, Afro-Colombian Women Braid Messages of Freedom in Hairstyles:
“In the time of slavery in Colombia, hair braiding was used to relay messages. For example, to signal that they wanted to escape, women would braid a hairstyle called departes. “It had thick, tight braids, braided closely to the scalp and was tied into buns on the top. And another style had curved braids, tightly braided on their heads. The curved braids would represent the roads they would [use to] escape. In the braids, they also kept gold and hid seeds which, in the long run, helped them survive after they escaped.”
In the years following Nigeria’s independence from Britain in 1960, photographer J.D ‘Okhai Ojeikere started documenting Nigerian hairstyles and developed a collection of over 1 000 portraits, titled Hairstyles. His black and white images have become a source of historical and antropological importance on Nigerian and African culture.
In 1972, African American actress Cicely Tyson wore intricate Nigerian-inspired braids during a television appearance and became the first personality to wear cornrows on TV. However, cornrows became widely popularised when actress Bo Derek wore beaded cornrows for the iconic 1979 film 10, the style became known (among caucasians) as “Bo Braids”.
Since the 1970s, cornrows became more visible in popular culture, more so in the 1990s where African American musicians and actresses gravitated towards various styles of braids and cornrows, however, for men cornrows had been popularised since the 1980s with the emergence of hip hop.
Since the advent of digital platforms we have become more aware of a diverse number of hair artists globally, most notably African American interdisciplinary artist Shani Crowe, whose work is centered on cultural coiffure and has been involved in numerous group and solo exhibitions, the most prevalent to date being her solo show BRAIDS with the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts (MoCADA). Crowe represents a growing number of hair artists who are experimenting with old and new ways of hair artistry and braiding.
As a signifier of African culture, identity and heritage, “African braids” or cornrows have evolved and continue to evolve and advance each decade and each century to reflect the spirit of the times.
 Willie F. Page, ed. (2001). Encyclopedia of African history and culture: Ancient Africa (prehistory to 500 CE), Volume 1. Facts on File. p. 36. ISBN 978-0816044726.