What did people wear in ancient Africa?
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African Clothing

masai cape
Masai leather cape with glass trade beads
from India, from north-eastern Africa (ca. 1000 AD)

April 2016 - Africa's a big place, so people had very different styles of clothing in different parts of Africa. And this page covers a lot of time, from the Stone Age to the Middle Ages, so there were also a lot of changes in clothing during that time.

People in Africa seem to have started wearing clothing around 180,000 years ago, soon after homo sapiens evolved - at least, that's about the time that the first body lice got started, and lice need clothing to live in. People probably started to wear clothes because of an Ice Age about that time: it got too cold to go naked. People first made clothing out of animal skins - leather and fur shawls and loincloths. They made the first jewelry out of seashells, ostrich egg shells, and feathers.

bark cloth
Bark cloth from the Congo, in central Africa

After many thousands of years, people began to make lighter, less sweaty kinds of clothes. Probably the first kind of cloth made in Africa was pounded bark fibers. You peel the bark off trees and pound it with a rock until the fibers get soft and the hard part breaks off. This makes small pieces of cloth which can be pounded or sewn together. In Uganda in Central Africa, for instance, people used the bark of fig trees. This kind of bark fabric may be related to the development of Egyptian papyrus. African people also pounded cloth from the raffia palm, as Herodotus reports in the story of the Persian explorer Sataspes.

indigo tie-dye
Indigo dye on cotton cloth

People dyed this bark cloth to make all kinds of patterns. The most important dye was indigo, which is the dye we use today to make blue jeans blue. Africans used tie-dyeing to make patterns on their cloth. In some parts of Africa, women did most of the fabric work, and in other parts of Africa, men did most of it. But early Africans also kept on wearing fur, and leather, and feather hats and headdresses, and jewelry made of ostrich shells, gold, feathers, and braided grass.

Learn by doing: feathers
More about African clothing

Bibliography and further reading about African cloth and clothing:

Traditional African Costumes Paper Dolls, by Yuko Green (1999).

African Girl and Boy Paper Dolls, by Yuko Green (1997).

African Textiles, by John Gillow (2003). Not for kids.

More about African clothing
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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
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