I have an immense respect for history and a passion for separating fact from fiction. As an eternal student of archaeology and anthropology, finding the origin and subsequent timeline of customs and artifacts is not just a passing curiosity. The following history of henna is based on documentation.
Archaeological findings confirm the first use of henna was as hair dye on mummified remains in ancient Egypt in 3,400 BCE .
Texts 4,000 - 1,000 years old show the cultivation and trade of henna for use as dye, perfume and medicine had expanded throughout the Mediterranean Basin. It first spread east to Arabia and Persia, Greece and Turkey in the north, then Jewish traders brought it to North Africa, the southern Iberian peninsula (Spain) and Palermo, Sicily.
1,300 years of henna body adornment. Written texts show henna body art spreading with Islam, Judaism and Christianity. It's documented in Arabia and Persia (8th-13th century) and the Iberian peninsula and Sicily (12th century). The use of henna for body art in India* arrived with the Mughal invasion (16th century). Henna finally made its way to North America in the mid-20th century.
* The conjecture that the body art depicted in the paintings and sculptures of the Ajanta Caves (2nd century BCE - 6th century CE) in Maharashtra, India as a far earlier use of henna in India's history is devoid of proof. There is no evidence of henna grown or traded in India at that time. What was abundantly used and documented for body paint in India during that time is the use of red lac as well as alkalized turmeric powder, red iron-oxide and madder powder. All are red in color and were indigenous the the region.
8th-13th Century: Arabia & Persia
12th Century: Iberian peninsula & Sicily
16th Century: India
18th-20th Century: Asia
20th Century: America & northern Europe
Looks can be deceiving. For a cultural appropriation claim to be well-founded it must be based on historic documentation and ancestry. Considering that henna body art has a 1,300 year old history, encompassed many cultures and the world's major religions, it doesn't belong to any one group. If someone's ancestry stems from Arabia, Persia, the Mediterranean Basin, India, Islam, Judaism, Christianity or Hinduism they have, without question, every right to use henna for body art. However, most people haven't traced their ancestry back 300 years much less 1,300 years, so one should err on the side of caution before accusing another of cultural theft based strictly on appearances.
Henna is part of my heritage. I'm one-quarter Sicilian with mixed religious ancestry of Christianity and Judaism and have absolutely no issue with anyone using henna* for body art. Henna is a beautiful medium that relaxes the senses and brings joy. That's something that, I believe, should be available to everyone. I welcome all to enjoy henna.
Fun bit of ironic trivia: My Sicilian ancestry comes from first the Platani River valley, Palermo and then a little village in the modern day Province of Enna. As the oldest surviving city in Sicily, Enna was founded by the Sicani tribe sometime before 1,100 BCE. They called it Henna.
To learn more I invite you to read an excellent article by fellow henna artist Modesrah Ahmed here.