The History of Beards

The history of beards is pretty extensive, but to get a better understanding of the social, cultural, visual and artistic importance of beards, let’s take a look at some of the key highlights in the storied history of beards.

Prehistory (100,000 years ago to 5,000 years ago) says there is evidence that anatomically modern humans were removing their facial hair with makeshift tweezers made out of seashells as early as 100,000 years ago. What we know about these early modern humans comes exclusively from the tools they leave behind and their bones, so we can’t be sure how they were styling their beards.

ancient beard trimmer

Sophisticated flint blades from the Upper Paleolithic, which could theoretically easily trim and shape beards.

All of that changed in the Late Upper Paleolithic some 50,000 years ago, when evidence shows that humans began displaying traits of behavioral modernity. The theory goes, before 50,000 years ago, humans simply looked like us, but didn’t display all of the modern behaviors of humans today, such as abstract thinking. Roughly 50,000 years ago, there was an explosion of behavioral modernity. People began doing what people nowadays do: draw pictures, make music, bury their dead, develop a sense of fashion and religion, etc. Most importantly when it comes to grooming, this is around the time where blade technology became widespread, as opposed to earlier stone tools that weren’t as precise as modern shaving razors.

venus of willendorf

The Venus of Willendorf gives us an idea of the level of tool sophistication and abstract thinking humans possessed during the Upper Paleolithic.

Women are more commonly displayed in Upper Paleolithic art than men, but their depictions can give us a lot of strong clues about Paleolithic haircare. On his website of reconstructional paleoenthology, Libor Balák of the Czech Academy of Sciences has done several artistic reconstructions of Upper Paleolithic “Venus figurines”. (Link is very NSFW and features nude artistic images of the female form. Also, it’s in Czech.) What the Venus figurines show us is that hair styles were quite advanced in the Upper Paleolithic and that short hair on women wasn’t uncommon. So, what does this tell us about men and their beards? Well, it tells us that they had the technology necessary at that time to groom and style their beards; after all, obsidian blades could be very sharp and were actually used for shaving purposes.

The Ancient World through the Early Modern Era (3000BCE to 1800CE)

Flash forward thousands of years to the Ancient Egyptians, who, while fond of the false beard, weren’t fans of actual facial or body hair—they even shaved the hair on their heads. It was at this time that metal razors came into being, which furthered a man’s ability to groom and shape his beard to the style of his choosing.

Akkadian ruler Sargon

The Akkadian ruler Sargon with an ornately styled and curled beard—note the straight mustache hair.

Meanwhile, around the same time, Akkadian and Assyrian men were proudly flaunting their beards. They took great care in styling their beards and were fond of curls, going so far as to curl their beards with a curling iron to get the desired effect.

The Hongzhi Emperor of the Qing Dynasty

The Hongzhi Emperor of the Qing Dynasty, China
(Reign: 1487-1505)

Beards remained in style in the eastern world. Confusion doctrine advised it wasn’t natural to cut one’s hair or beard. Beards have been worn by Indian holy men for at least the last couple of thousand years, and still are very common among Hindus and Sikhs. In Islam, it is considered sinful for a man to shave his beard and has been since the religion’s founding.

John Knox

John Knox and his famous beard

The western history of beards is a different story. Greeks favored beards; Romans tended to be clean shaven. However, beards would come and go out of fashion in Rome which set the standard off-and-on pattern for beard popularity all over Europe for over a thousand years. Beards might disappear for a century to abruptly come back, with the exception of Roman Catholic monks who were always clean-shaven for religious reasons.

The Modern Era (1800CE to Present Day)

German Emperor Frederick III

German Emperor Frederick III as a young man

The 1800’s is finally when fashion rules loosened up just enough for beards to become a personal choice. Not only could you choose to have one or not—it should be noted in the middle of the century they were almost universal, though—you could also tailor the beard to your face shape and your personal sense of style. This is really the age when modern beard care began, too, with the development of modern innovations in the development of beard vitamins, sprays and shampoos, etc.

Now, in 2017, we are truly in the golden age of beards. Not only are they socially acceptable, but there are so many styles to choose from and grooming tools available to really take your beard to the next level.

The role beards play in human evolution

Currently, beards are considered a secondary sexual characteristic in human males among evolutionary scientists, similar in the way that breasts are a secondary sexual characteristic in human females. They aren’t necessary for reproduction, but they signal physical maturity, and that one is capable of producing offspring.

Darwin posited that beards came into being via sexual selection—and modern science agrees. Males with beards were likely chosen by females because of their perceived healthiness, manliness, and aggression—traits which ensure healthy, well-protected offspring. Thus, these bearded males were more prolific in producing offspring and their bearded genes became dominant within all modern human males.