Hair Studies: Braids & Dreads
Micro braids, goddess braids, Ghana braids, snake, mohawk, dutch, french, halo, fishtail, waterfall… it seems there are as many types of braids as there are types of hair. Nearly 5 million braiding videos are available on YouTube, and here in the famous melting pot of New York City, a parade of braided styles can be seen on any day. Braids are highly functional – but their historical roots run eons deep, and tell fascinating social, spiritual, and geopolitical stories.
Africa, considered the cradle of civilization, is also home to the most famous and intricate braids or plaits, but braids have been worn around the world. The oldest record of braids is a carved statuette of unknown origin called the Venus (or Woman) of Willendorf, estimated to have been made 30,000 years ago as a fertility fetish, which features woven hair capping a voluptuous body.
Ancient egyptians have a reputation for invention, including paper, toothpaste, calendars, math, and even condoms. And while they may not have invented braiding – combining three strands of material into one – their hairstyles reflected wealth, age and social group. Young girls wore braids or ponytails. Royalty wore braided wigs, as did elders to hide the lack of hair or greyness.
Braids were adorned with berries, petals, linen ribbons, or as a show of status, threaded with gold. Braids were often used as extensions to thicken hair. For men, beards were a symbol of divinity and not worn by the everyman, but those who did braided them in the style of Tutankhamun’s gold burial mask. Queen Meryet-Amun was entombed with extra braids for a stylish afterlife.
Braids were a sign of wealth and the leisure it affords; the more elaborate, the better.
To differentiate themselves from Egyptians, classical Greek women grew hair much longer, and pulled it back into chignons. Many styles involved braids fixed to the head and decorated with flowers, headbands, ribbons and pieces of metal. Braids were a sign of wealth and the leisure it affords; the more elaborate, the better.
During the reign of the Emperor Augustus, detailed hairstyles came into fashion as an expression of wealth and status. False hair pieces made hair thicker and longer. Sophisticated braids and knots were adorned with pearls and jewelled pins.
In Native American tradition, hair is a signifier of one’s spiritual practice. Combing represents the alignment of thought; braiding is the Oneness of thought, and tieing is the securing of thought. Flowing strands of hair are considered individually weak, but when joined in braids they demonstrate strength in unity. Letting hair flow free demonstrates harmony with the flow of life, and braiding indicates thoughts of oneness.
For centuries, the Manchu dynasty forced people to wear hairstyles prescribed by rank, and rice farmers wore braids down the back. When Yat-sen, the chinese leader of the late 20th century overthrew the Manchu dynasty to bring people out of feudalism, he encouraged braid-cutting, which became common in urban areas; but braids were so deeply rooted in rural tradition that murder and suicide were committed in their defense.
. braids were so deeply rooted in rural tradition that murder and suicide were committed in their defense.
Arguably, the richest hair traditions have been sustained – some might say reborn – from their origins in Africa. Tribal cultures endowed hair with spiritual significance and immense power. As the most elevated part of the body, hair was believed to be the conduit for gods and spirits to reach the soul. Hairdressers were trustworthy members of society, senior women, family or close friends with whom tribal bonds could be cemented, and grooming rituals often lasted several hours, even several days.
As the most elevated part of the body, hair was believed to be the conduit for gods and spirits to reach the soul.
Twisting, braiding, beading, and grooming also forged meaningful bonds between elders and children, and traditional techniques were thus passed along generations. Braiding customs were both ritual and social service, but requiring no reward or pay; it was in fact unlucky to offer thanks.
Loose hair can indicate a lack of hygiene and tidiness, while being groomed shows good health and manners; ceremonies for the dead are the only acceptable time to let hair loose. Practically speaking, fire and fire dances are typically a part of social rites, and braiding hair keeps it safer from open flame.
Details vary from tribe to tribe: Mangbetu women plait hair and arrange hair in cone-shaped basket frames decorated with bone needles. Miango women decorate braids with scarves and leaves. Massai men stiffen them with animal dung, and Himba women mix red ochre, butter, ash and herbs to coat them; a girl is entitled to only two braids, and acquires more once she marries. Himba men wear one braid, and tie it into a turban after marriage. Mbalantu women put finely grounded tree bark and oil into their hair starting at the age of 12 to help it grow long and thick, and braid it into elaborate headdresses throughout their lives.
Common African tribal beliefs include: Hair should be cut on a full moon for it to grow longer; twopeople braiding a person’s hair at the same time could result in the death of one groomer; pregnant women should not braid others’ hair; hair should not be combed or braided in the open.
Twisting, braiding, beading, and grooming also forged meaningful bonds between elders and children, and traditional techniques were thus passed along generations.
Telling a very different story are dreadlocks, or “nature’s braids.” When hair is left ungroomed long enough – and coaxed into form by hand with various unguents – it will naturally knot into rope.
Theories on the origin of the term dreadlocks vary, but most agree that a socio-religious movement founded by Marcus Garvey in Harlem in the early 20th century attracted an enthusiastic following amongst black Jamaicans. Based on the Bible, African tribal culture, and Hinduism that had recently taken hold in the West Indies, Garvey promoted the return of the African diaspora to ancestral lands – and abhorred the chemical relaxing of hair, saying, “Remove the kinks from your mind, not your hair.”
“Remove the kinks from your mind, not your hair.”
The followers of this movement grew matted locks of hair, and called themselves Dreads, signifying that they dreaded, or respected God. Turning their focus on the Ethiopian Emperor Ras Tafari, Haile Selassie, they thus became known as Rastafarians. Selassie was crowned emperor of Ethiopia in 1930, but was forced into exile in 1936 after leading the resistance against the Italian invasion.
Some say that sympathetic guerilla warriors vowed not to cut their hair until Selassie’s release; it became long and matted, and because they were widely feared or dreaded, the term ‘dreadlocks’ was coined. Others say Rastafarians believed Selassie was a biblically sanctioned God – even the second coming of Christ – and as the Bible describes the return of Jesus as the Lion of Judah, dreadlocks were a symbol of the lion’s mane.
Though the term is local, the phenomenon is global – though it should be said that as human history began in Africa it stands to reason that the locking of human hair has origins there as well. The first archaeological record is Egyptian, where ancient mummies have been discovered with dreads still intact. Ancient pharaohs wore them as seen in tomb carvings, drawings and other artifacts.
The first archaeological record is Egyptian, where ancient mummies have been discovered with dreads still intact. Ancient pharaohs wore them as seen in tomb carvings, drawings and other artifacts.
Dreads were worn by Romans in the celtic era, Vikings, germanic tribes, monks in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, Nazarites of Judaism, Qalandris, Sufis, Sadhus of Hinduism, Dervishes of Islam, and early Christians. In 2500 BCE, The Vedas, Hinduism’s oldest scriptures, depicted the Shiva wearing locks, or jaTaa in Sanskrit.
Frescoes in Santorini, Greece made 3600 years ago, and over half of extant ancient Greek Kouros sculptures depict men with dreads. Spartan warriors were shown with them on their battle robes.
The first Bishop of Jerusalem, James the Just, was thought to have dreads to his ankles. Yogis, Gyanis and Tapasvis are among famous wearers. In Buddhism, dreads are symbolic of material non-attachment; students in classical India on a spiritual path grew them to detach from physical vanity and to develop mental and spiritual powers.
Many traditions teach that the top of the head – the crown chakra as it is most widely known – is the portal for physical, mental and spiritual energies.
Many traditions teach that the top of the head – the crown chakra as it is most widely known – is the portal for physical, mental and spiritual energies. If hair is uncut, and knotted, it can store energy within the body to maintain strength and health, or as Rastafarians say, hair is our “God antennae.”
Dreadlocks: Spiritual intent, supernatural power, non-violence, non-conformity, communalism, socialism, solidarity. that is the power of hair.
That’s a summary of braids around the world. But what about braids around your own head? Here to guide you through creating them yourself are three hairdressers – Jonathan Van Ness of Queer Eye fame (who surely needs no introduction), editorial stylist (and promising sit-down comedienne) Taylor Bond, and the irrepressible Joey George .
Micro braids, goddess braids, Ghana braids, snake, mohawk, dutch, french, halo, fishtail, waterfall… it seems there are as many types of braids as there are types of hair. Nearly 5 million braiding videos are available on YouTube, and here in the famous melting pot of New York City, a parade of brai
A New Crop of Marijuana Geneticists Sets Out to Build Better Weed
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The marijuana analytics company Steep Hill doesn’t smell dank, or skunky, or “loud”—unless you happen to arrive when a client is dropping off a sample. No seven-pointed-leaf logos ornament the walls; no Tibetan prayer flags flutter from the doorframe. Inside, a half-dozen young scientists work in a glass-walled lab to the sounds of whirring ventilation and soft jazz. The effect is one of professionalism and scientific objectivity.
Still, this place is all about weed. And Reggie Gaudino, Steep Hill’s burly and dreadlocked 53-year-old vice president of scientific operations, does look the part. Steep Hill is headquartered in famously 420-friendly Berkeley, California, after all. “I’ve been smoking since I was 13 years old,” he says, looking down over a railing at the lab. It’s a world he has long appreciated. Now he’d like to give a little back. “There’s so much good that can be done with cannabis, and so little of it is being done.”
As more and more states (23 so far) are finding legal ways for people to consume cannabis, Steep Hill and labs like it are becoming more important. Steep Hill quantifies the numbers you see on labels in dispensaries: how much tetrahydrocannabinol (THC, the molecule that gets you high) and cannabidiol (CBD, the component of weed thought to alleviate seizures) are in a given strain of pot. But any remotely dedicated smoker will tell you that a strain is more than its potency. Purple Kush and Sour Diesel have different characters, different smells and tastes and feels. Those are the result of the interactions of hundreds of molecules—cannabinoids, yes, but also another class called terpenoids. Myrcene, for example, smells like hops and mango (and some fans claim it increases the potency of THC). Beta-caryophyllene has the scent of pepper. There’s also ocimene, nerolidol, pinene—the interaction of all these chemicals creates whatever distinction exists between ’78 LA OG Affie and, say, Green Crack.
So when someone drops off one of those samples at Steep Hill’s reception, the lab swoops in to quantify 27 of the most prominent of these flavorful, experience-defining molecules. After eight years in business, the company has accumulated and tested thousands of samples—it has stacks and stacks of plant tissue in test tubes in a giant freezer. It has analytical chemistry on those, and thanks to a deal with the marijuana review site Leafly, the company also has thousands of crowdsourced reviews. When it comes to data on weed, Steep Hill is, well, the bomb.
It’s one thing, though, to know what molecules are found in different weed strains. It’s another to know what those chemicals actually do—scientifically speaking. Their aromas certainly affect the experience of consumption, somehow. They might even underpin cannabis’s putative medicinal effects—fighting nausea, stimulating appetite, easing seizures, and perhaps even more.
And it’s yet another thing to understand the genetic basis for those differences. That’s the key. It’s what you need if you plan to breed scientifically, to enhance the qualities the market might pay for. Even more than legalization, that’s how you transform marijuana from an illicit pleasure to a licit business. “Every other commercially important agricultural plant in the world has had a ton of research done on it,” Gaudino says. “But here is this commercially important crop that has so much variation, and nobody knows what that variation’s all about.”
Plant biologists would love to understand cannabis better. But marijuana is a Schedule I drug in the United States, as illegal as heroin. Most academic researchers working with it are limited to (pathetic) weed grown at the University of Mississippi. Much of the research funding comes from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, which prioritizes studying ill effects over any potential good.
But Steep Hill has all those samples and all those chemical profiles. Now it just needs the genetics. And Gaudino, a geneticist and former patent agent, has a plan to get that. The problem is, deciphering the pot genome is, like, way harder than it sounds.
In 1993, the average THC content in weed was about 3 percent by weight. Over the next 15 years, breeders tripled the potency. Today, not even a decade later, levels top out at a whopping 37 percent. Thank the war on drugs: As growers moved indoors and out of sight, they drove up THC levels. Then they could charge more to pay for the costs of climate control and artificial lighting.
Smokers have gotten savvier, too. Increasing THC gets you higher but lessens the plant’s ability to make other, arguably more interesting, cannabinoids and terpenoids. So growers also set out to create new breeds that would be as different from one another as a chardonnay and a pinot noir. And it sort of worked: Just like a vintner will rattle off a bottle’s tasting notes and terroir, a Denver budtender can sell a smoker on a plant’s piney nose and its concentration of crystallized trichomes, hairlike protrusions that contain high levels of psychoactive cannabinoids. These kinds of characteristics, the ones you can see (or smell), are a plant’s phenotype.
If you know your plant’s genotype, though—the genes behind those traits—then you can grow the plants with the traits you want much faster and with extreme precision. Called marker-assisted selection, it’s the key to modern agriculture.
When Gaudino joined Steep Hill in 2014, he looked at the company’s vast trove of data and asked CEO David Lampach what kind of research their competitors were doing. Lampach’s response: “What do you mean, what are people doing? There are only three testing labs worth anything in the entire US.”
Gaudino was shocked. “I asked, ‘Have you guys ever considered genetic analysis?’”
Specifically, Gaudino wanted to build a full assembly of marijuana’s 800 million base pairs and 10 chromosomes to help breeders discover more markers for specific traits. Then, ideally, they’d be able to turn up the expression of any of the hundreds of chemicals in weed—some that smell great, some that get you high, and some that might ease pain or maybe even treat a disease. “My mad-scientist dream is a database where you can type in what you’re looking for,” Gaudino says. “You’ll either get out the strain that exists that does that or if it doesn’t exist, it’ll tell you what strains you could begin breeding.”
Other people had already tried it. In 2011, Kevin McKernan, chief scientific officer of a firm called Medicinal Genomics, made public the sequences for strains called Chemdawg and LA Confidential. And Jonathan Page, a biochemist with Canada’s National Research Council, had results for the Purple Kush genome. But these weren’t the kind of sequences anyone could use.
The problem is, geneticists don’t simply unspool all the DNA in a cell and then run it through a scanner, like the roll on an old-time player piano. They break those miles of code into teeny pieces, read those, and then use the overlaps to put them all back together like a jigsaw puzzle. The go-to standard sequencing machine, built by a company called Illumina, scans pieces of DNA from 100 to 350 base pairs long. (A single gene might comprise more than 2,000 base pairs.)
This method isn’t great for plants. Their genomes are naturally full of repeating sequences, which makes it almost impossible to tell which fragments overlap—they all look the same, so you can’t line them up. Worse, plants tend to maintain multiple copies of their useful, core genes as backups in case something goes awry in their environment. (Unlike animals, which can run away from their problems, plants have had to adapt to their protean surroundings.)
Cannabis breeders have made the problems even worse. They’ve been crossbreeding for so long to pump up pot’s psychoactivity that modern strains can have as many as 11 copies of the gene that synthesizes THC. If the crossbred genome were a jigsaw puzzle, most of the picture would be blue sky.
In the end, those first attempts to sequence the cannabis genome yielded hundreds of thousands of tiny fragments, so many that nobody could stitch them together. But Gaudino thought he could do better. “I’m not a gambling man, but this was one of the times that I gambled,” he says. “And I went long.” In 2014, Steep Hill spent $1.1 million on a PacBio RS II sequencer, one of fewer than 200 in the country. It’s a giant white box sitting next to the freezer full of frozen buds, adorned with 8-inch-tall Cheech and Chong dolls that Gaudino got when he was a kid. Unlike the much cheaper Illumina sequencers, the PacBio reads fragments of DNA as long as 53,000 base pairs.
Then Gaudino went to a Berkeley dispensary, bought a citrusy-smelling Kush strain called Pineapple Bubba, and spent $20,000 on reagents and data-crunching to sequence it. It wasn’t a genome yet: 583 million base pairs shattered into 18,000 puzzle pieces. Still, they were longer than anyone else had, easier to reassemble. Gaudino just needed more data to string them together.
There are thousands of strains of weed. Cracking their genetic codes may be the key to transforming pot from a budding business to a high-flying industry.