The earliest stages of human evolution are believed to have begun in Africa about seven million years ago as a population of African apes evolved into three different species: gorillas, chimpanzees, and humans. Protohumans, as early humans are known, evolved about 2.5 million years ago and had larger brains and stood nearly upright.
The evolution of African clothing is difficult to trace because of the lack of historical evidence. Although artifacts from Egyptian culture date back to before 3000 B.C.E., no similar evidence is available for the majority of the African continent until the mid-twentieth century.
Loose-fitting robes are worn in many different regions of Africa, especially in West Africa. These robes reach to the ankles and are either open at the sides or stitched closed along the edges.
Animal hides have been a traditional clothing material used by many cultures in Africa, likely since the dawn of human history. Animal hide clothing was made most often from the skins of domesticated animals.
Aso oke cloth is an intricately woven cloth used for ceremonial garments. Made by the Yoruba men of Nigeria, Aso oke cloth is decorated with elaborate patterns made from dyed strands of fabric that are woven into strips of cloth.
Bark cloth was one of the first cloths known to be made on the African continent, though its exact origins are lost to history. Bark cloth was made by peeling the inner bark off trees and beating it until it was soft.
Batik cloth has been important in Africa for nearly two thousand years. Batik is a method of applying pattern to fabric.
The nomadic Berber people trace their African roots back to 2000 B.C.E. (Nomads are peoples who have no fixed place of residence and wander from place to place usually with the seasons or as food sources become scarce.) Over the years since then their dress has changed with the influences of invading cultures.
Asleeveless robe is called a boubou in Nigeria and Senegal. A boubou is worn by men over the top of long sleeved gowns or alone with loose trousers.
Cotton was woven in West Africa as early as the thirteenth century. Unlike the earlier handwoven cloths, cotton was woven on looms, frames used to interlace individual threads into fabric.
Richly woven Kente cloth is among the most famous woven cloths of Africa. Made originally for Ashanti tribal royalty in the seventeenth century, the cloth is derived from an ancient type of weaving practiced since the eleventh century.
In the present-day nation of the Democratic Republic of the Congo the Kuba people weave a decorative cloth called Kuba cloth. Although this tradition is believed to be ancient, the oldest surviving examples of the cloth are dated back to the seventeenth century.
Among African fabrics, the mud cloth of Mali in West Africa is as well-known as the Kente cloth of Ghana. Mud cloth is made of cotton strips woven by men and stitched together to form a larger cloth.
The variety of hairstyles and head-wear in Africa matches the diversity of the people who live on the continent. Different cultures have used hairstyles and headwear to show tribal association, gender, religion, job, and social status.
The fez cap is popular among northern Africans, especially men, of various nationalities, religions, and tribal affiliations. The cap is a small, brimless, flat-topped cap that fits above the ears on the top of the head.
Head decoration is an important part of everyday African dress. Headwraps are common cloth adornments for covering the hair.
Men and women throughout Africa have smoothed clay or mud on their heads as decoration for thousands of years. Clay and mud is used to hold their hair stiffly in place or mounded into helmets that can be painted with colorful designs.
Africans have ancient traditions for decorating and accessorizing the body in rich and varied ways. Traditionally, many African peoples wore little to cover their bodies, leaving their skin exposed and available for decoration.
Beadwork has been a common decorative tradition for many years in Africa. The earliest beads were made from grass seeds, shells, clay, stone, and wood.
Across the continent of Africa, the skin was, and still is, regarded as a blank canvas to be decorated in a variety of different ways. Body painting was traditionally used in many societies to signify a person's social status and religious beliefs.
Head flattening is the practice of permanently elongating the skull by wrapping young children's heads while their skulls are still forming. African cultures reshaped the skulls of their members to increase an individual's beauty and to improve social status.
Lip plugs, also known as labrets, have been worn for thousands of years by the women of several different African social groups. Lip plugs are considered essential to the beauty of some African women and are viewed as having protective value to others.
Decorative masks were an important part of the ceremonies practiced by people living throughout Africa. Such ceremonies included initiation rituals for young people to become members of a social group, rituals to enforce a society's rules, and religious occasions.
Scarification, the art of carving decorative scars into the skin, is an ancient practice on the continent of Africa that is now fading from use. The first Europeans to encounter Africans commented upon the patterns of scars that decorated the bodies of many of the people.
The Berbers living in northern Africa used body decoration not only as a way to beautify themselves but also as potent protection against illness and evil spirits. One of their most unique forms of decoration was known as siyala.
The available evidence about ancient African cultures suggests that most Africans did not wear shoes for much of their early history. Although many northern tribes had contact with people who wore sandals and shoes, including the ancient Egyptians and Greeks, and later Arabs and Persians (from present-day Iran), a complete record of when or how Africans adopted foot coverings does not exist.