The ideas are cornrows started centuries ago. Some historians date examples of them as early as 500 B.C. You can see evidence of this hairstyle in ancient hieroglyphs and sculptures of many civilizations, most notably in Egypt. In fact, if you look closely, you will see braids flowing from the back of the mighty Sphinx! Other regions of the world where these hairstyles seem to have originated include Nigeria and Africa.
This early style of braiding hair was actually a cultural practice that entailed not only intricate, handmade details, but cultural and regional importance as well. Cornrows and braiding patterns were commonly used to distinguish one tribe from another. In some cases, respective tribes would use found materials like shells or beads as part of their woven designs.
The basic technique employs an upward, underhand motion that results in tight braids that start very close to the scalp. It is always done by hand, and as such can take many hours to complete. However, this is the only way to truly achieve not only the look you want, but to understand the experience as well. The end result, of course, could be almost anything you can imagine. Where you place the braids or how you organize the design is completely up to you or your stylist if you have one.
Although this type of artistic and cultural expression is indeed quite ancient, it is still very popular today. Ironically, the slave trade is partially responsible for introducing this custom to the Americas, as indigenous Africans were brought to the continent for New World cultivation. On this new continent they tried to hold onto as much of their home as they could.
When the Black Pride Movement and the Civil Rights Movement took hold across the United States in the 1960s, there was a great revival of African traditions. As more and more Americans of African descent became empowered they generated an awakening for more traditional and natural hairstyles. Of course, this included more than just braids and cornrows, but they were a large part of the movement.
Recently, another awakening has occurred due to the popularity of black entertainers and athletes. As they grow in notoriety, many of them have taken to using cornrows and braids as a way to establish their own personality and individual image. This is certainly the most elaborate form of self-expression that, perhaps, pop culture has ever seen, and it is indeed an interesting one.