the Science of ancient Egyptian hair and why it sometimes looks European



Copyright Naomi Astral © 2012

There are many myths about ancient Egyptian hair and most of them have been perpetuated by Hollywood and Zahi Hawass. Many Egyptians did not shave their heads and there are new studies which blow out of the window many myths about these ancients - they clearly suffered from the same problems and desires as those with nappy hair today.


Researchers have found that the Egyptians gelled and dyed their hair, braided it and wore elaborate hair styles including wigs, hair extensions and hair pieces. The embalming process was adapted to preserve the hairstyle.

Natalie McCreesh, an archaeological scientist from the KNH Centre for Biomedical Egyptology at the University of Manchester, UK and her colleagues studied hair samples taken from 18 mummies. The oldest is around 3,500 years old but most were excavated from a cemetery in the Dakhleh Oasis in the Western Desert and date from the Greco-Roman times, around 2,300 years ago.

The researchers believe that this fat-based hair gel was used by the Egyptians to mould and hold the hair in position to enhance appearance, since some of the deceased that had been mummified naturally in the desert also had fats in their hair. When the mummified using embalming chemicals, the undertakers seem to have taken special care to retain the deceased's hairdos, as they used different chemicals on different parts of the body. 'It is evident that different materials were used for different areas of the body,' the researchers write. 'The hair samples from the Dakhleh Oasis were not coated with resin/bitumen-based embalming materials but were coasted with a fat-based substance.'

The mummies had all different kinds of hairstyles depending on the age, sex and presumed social status. Researchers have previously discovered objects in Egyptian tombs that seem to be curling tongs, so they most likely would have been used in conjunction with the hair produces to achieve different styles. There's also speculation that the Egyptians used beeswax on their hair.

Ancient Egyptian wig


Trichology is the scientific analysis of hair. An instrument called a 'trichometer' is used to measure the cross-section of the hair shaft. From this you can get measurements for the minimum and maximum diameter of hair which is very specific to the races of mankind. The minimum measurement is then divided by the maximum and then multiplied by a hundred. This produces an index survey of the scientific literature.

In the early 1970's the Czech anthropologist, Eugen Strouhal examined pre-dynastic European skulls at Cambridge University. He sent some samples of the hair to the Institute of Anthropology at Charles University, Prague to be analysed. The hair samples were describes as varying in texture from 'wavy' to 'curly' and in colour from 'light brown' to 'black'. Strouhal summarised the results of the analysis:

'The outline of the cross-sections of the hairs was flattened, with indices ranging from 35-65. These peculiarities also show the Negroid inference among the Badarians [pre-dynasic Egyptians]. The term, 'Negroid influence' suggests intermixture but as the table suggests, this hair is more 'Negroid' than the San and the Zulu samples, currently the most Negroid hair in existence!

In another study, hair samples from the 18-25th dynasty individuals produced an average index of 51 as fa back as 1877, Dr Pruner-Bey analysed six different Egyptian hair samples. Their average index of 64.4 was similar to the Tasmanians who lie at the periphery of the African-haired populations.

A team of Italian anthropologists published their research in the Journal of Human Evolution in 1972 and 1980. They measured two samples consisting of 26 individuals from the pre-dynastic, 12the dynasty and 18th dynasty mummies. They produced a mean index of 66.50. The overall average of all four sets of ancient Egyptian hair samples was 60.02 - African.

An ancient Egyptian clearly Nubian depicted here with red hair - which is most likely dyed.


Research has given us the is made of keratin protein. Keratin is composed of amino acide chains called polypeptiteds. In a hair, two such chains are called cross-chain polypeptides. These are held together by disulphide bonds. The bulk of the hair, the source of it's strength and curl is called, the cortex. The hair shafts are made of a protective outer layer called, the cuticle.

'We are informed by Afro Hair - a Salon Book, that chemicals for bleaching, penning and straightening hair must reach the cortex to be effective for hair to be permed or straightened the disulphide bonds in the cortex must be broken. The anthropologist, Daniel Hardy, writing in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, tells us that keratin is stable owing to disulphide bonds. However, when hair is exposed to harsh conditions, it can lead to oxidation of protein molecules in the cortex, which leads to the alteration of hair texture, such as straightening.

Two British anthropologists, Brothwell and Spearman, have found evidence of cortex keratin oxidation in ancient Egyptian hair. They held that the mummification process was responsible because of the strong alkaline substance used. This resulted in the yellowing and browning of hair as well as the straightening effect.

This means that visual appearance of the hair on mummies cannot disguise their racial affinities. The presence of blond and brown hair on ancient mummies has nothing to do with their racial identity and everything to do with mummification and the passage of time. As studies have shown, when you put the evidence under a microscope, the truth comes out.

Mummies reveal Egyptians styled hair with products

Why some ancient Egyptian hair looks European

Hair colour changes when you die FACTS:

Queen Ahmose-Nofretari

Elderly lady from tomb KV35, hair colouring and texture most likely [henna on grey] - styling and age of mummy

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