The ultimate expression of anarchy, the now-mainstream Mohawk hairstyle has a surprisingly ancient history. While most people think the Mohawk hairstyle was created by anti-establishment punks back in the 1970s, the true story of the Mohawk (or Mohican if you’re in Britain) is actually far more complicated.
The Mohawk is a hairstyle whereby both sides of the head are shaved, leaving a strip of longer hair running down the middle. Evidence of this trend has been found in different corners of the globe, from the Irish Celts to the Cossacks of Ukraine, or even the Mandinke warriors of Mali, according to Mr. T, the 1980s American actor who played B. A. Baracus in The A- Team and was known for his iconic Mohawk.
The Clonycavan Man bog body, featuring what some claim is the world’s first Mohawk, at the National Museum in Ireland. (Bob White / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 )
When an Iron Age bog body was accidentally unearthed in Ireland back in 2003, one of its most striking features was its hair. Despite his grizzly death, the remains of the Clonycavan Man managed to survive in staggering condition for 2,300 years with what has been dubbed the world’s first Mohawk. This seems unlikely, however, and it seems that the skull was simply decalcified and his high ponytail flattened over time, taking a bit of the oomph out of the story.
Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks, which features Ukrainian Cossacks sporting their oseledets hairstyle, by Ilya Repin. ( Public domain )
In the 5th century BC, Herodotus wrote that in northern Libya the Macai tribe also wore what is described as a Mohawk coiffure. A similar hairstyle was also sported by 16th-century Ukrainian Cossacks, said to have shaved their heads and left behind a long central strip of hair which was then braided into a topknot. Known as an oseledets, this hairstyle seems to date back to the Middle Ages, and has been coopted as a symbol of resistance against the Russians.
The name “Mohawk” originates on the other side of the Atlantic with the Native Americans , where hair has historically been hugely significant. Hair styles vary from tribe to tribe and the cutting of hair was often seen as a sign of grief or shame. Due to some cultural mistranslation and the usual dash of white man ignorance, the Mohawk has been attributed to the Native American Mohawk tribe, whose actual name was Kanien’kehá:ka, who once lived in what is now New York State and parts of Canada. Their warriors were more likely to wear what was known as a scalp lock, where they would pluck out all their hair leaving just a small section on the crown which they would braid and decorate.
A Pawnee warrior with his traditional Mohawk hairstyle, in an 1832 painting by George Catlin. ( Public domain )
Nevertheless, the hairstyle known today as a Mohawk was closer to one used by an entirely different tribe, the Pawnee, who lived on the other side of the continent in modern-day Kansas-Nebraska. Thanks to misrepresentations of Native American history in Hollywood movies, such as the 1930 Western film Drums Along the Mohawk , the so-called Mohawk natives were dressed up with Pawnee roach hairstyles, and the term “Mohawk” stuck in popular consciousness.
Top image: The Anarchic Mohawk Hairstyle. Source: ArtoPhotoDesigno / Adobe Stock
By Cecilia Bogaard