The Man-Bun: Not Just a Modern Phenomenon

Symbol of a Hipster - or Royalty?

The gold helmet of Meskalamdug from Ur, complete with man-bun!. CM Dixon/Print Collector/Getty Images

As the man-bun trend swallows hipster society whole – whether or not it causes early baldness is up for debate - people may forget that this controversial hairstyle isn’t an innovation. As with so many other things, the ancients did the man-bun first – thousands of years ago!

Positively Bun-derful

Let’s start with the man-bun in ancient India. The late Harappan site of Daimabad, from the late third millennium B.C., yielded a cache of intriguing bronzes, including a figure of a guy riding dirty in a chariot.

As he guides two yoked oxen forward, he proudly sports a man-bun and has four cobra hoods flaring up around his penis. Other Harappan male figurines sport a bun and headband, depicting them as warriors or heroes, similar to some men in Sumer.  

The images of men wearing buns has continued on for centuries in India. Witness a beautiful fourth or fifth century A.D. statue of Buddha discovered in Kashmir, in which the holy figure wears what looks like a gorgeous bun on his head. A Buddha bun even has its own sacred name – the usnisa.  a hair knot signifying his royal status that has flames, enlightened energy, coming out of it. In fact, it isn’t even really hair – although it may have started as such - but is more of a crown. 

Stylish in Sumer 

Centuries of kings in Mesopotamia depicted themselves wearing chignons, a gorgeous kind of bun. In fact, the man-bun was an identifier of Mesopotamian warrior-kings.

 In the tomb of the 27th-century B.C. King Meskalamdug of Ur, archaeologists found a lovely golden helmet, complete with sculpted hair and attached man-bun; an Early Dynastic ruler of Mari in Syria named Ishqi-Mari was immortalized in statuary found in the temple of Ishtar in his city, and his figurine, too, bore a really intense chignon.

The Stele of the Vultures, dating from the Early Dynastic III period (about 2400 B.C.), depicted Eannatum, king of Lagash, monumentalizes Lagash’s military triumph over its neighboring city of Umma. It derives its name from the vultures hovering over the dead that its king conquered. There, Eannatum shows himself with his troops as a warrior-king – and he’s wearing a chignon with a headband!

This royal iconography continued down to the Akkadian kings. After Sargon the Great conquered the city-states of Sumer, he depicted himself in statuary with a chignon and long, curly hair, visually identifying himself as a powerful king of the states he conquered. A life-size, hollow-cast head, dating to that period, possibly shows either Sargon or his grandson, Naram-Sin. Probably originally part of a giant statue, the head boasts intricate detailing, especially on the hair and beard, and in the royal chignon the man wears. By presenting himself as a Sumerian king, Sargon or Naram-Sin attempts to establish his reign in a long line of continuity of city-state monarchs. 

Updo Extraordinaire

The men of India and Mesopotamia weren’t the only ones to boast buns. Thucydides deemed man-buns effeminate in his History of the Peloponnesian War, stating, “The Athenians were the first to lay aside their weapons, and to adopt an easier and more luxurious mode of life; indeed, it is only lately that their rich old men left off the luxury of wearing undergarments of linen, and fastening a knot of their hair with a tie of golden grasshoppers, a fashion which spread to their Ionian kindred and long prevailed among the old men there.” 

Warriors of ancient China famously wore top-knots. From the Han dynasty onwards (which was in power, on and off, from the third century B.C. to the third century A.D.), mentions appear of the chuijie, the mallet-shaped bun. It’s usually associated with the Yue people of southern China, but Wei Man, a Chinese leader who established a colony in Korea, brought the hairstyle with him on his conquests. Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of a united China in the third century B.C., commissioned thousands of terracotta warriors to defend him in the afterlife. Many of these realistic soldiers, perhaps based on individual people, wore many types of buns on top of their heads.