Nok Culture

Sub-Saharan Africa's earliest civilization?

Nok Terracotta, Louvre. Photograph by Marie-Lan Nguyen - Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Nok Culture spanned the end of the Neolithic (Stone Age) and start of the Iron Age in sub-Saharan Africa, and may be the oldest organized society in sub-Saharan Africa; current research suggests it predated the founding of Rome by some 500 years. Nok was a complex society with permanent settlements and centres for farming and manufacturing, but we are still left guessing who the Nok were, how their culture developed, or what happened to it.

The Discovery of Nok Culture

In 1943, clay shards and a terracotta head were discovered during tin mining operations on the southern and western slopes of the Jos Plateau in Nigeria. The pieces were taken to archaeologist Bernard Fagg, who immediately suspected their importance.  He began collecting pieces and excavating, and when he dated the pieces using new techniques, discovered what colonial ideologies said wasn't possible: an ancient West African society dating back to at least 500 B.C.E. Fagg named this culture Nok, the name of the village near to which the first discovery was made.

Fagg continued his studies, and subsequent research at two important sites, Taruga and Samun  Dukiya, provided more accurate information on Nok culture. More of Nok's terracotta sculptures, domestic pottery, stone axes and other tools, and iron implements were discovered, but due to the colonial dismissal of ancient African societies, and, later, the problems facing the newly independent Nigeria, the region remained understudied.

Looting carried out on behalf of Western collectors, compounded the difficulties entailed in learning about Nok culture.

A Complex Society

It was not until the 21st century that sustained, systematic research was carried out on Nok culture, and the results have been stunning.  The most recent finds, dated by thermo-luminescence testing and radio-carbon dating, indicate that Nok culture lasted from around 1200 B.C.E.

to 400 C.E., yet we still do not know how it arose or what happened to it.

The sheer volume as well as artistic and technical skills seen in the terracotta sculptures suggests that Nok culture was a complex society. This is further supported by the existence of iron working (a demanding skill carried out by experts whose other needs like food and clothing must be met by others), and archaeological digs have shown that the Nok had sedentary farming. Some experts have argued that the uniformity of the terracotta - which suggests a single source of the clay - is evidence of a centralized state, but it could also be evidence of a complex guild structure. Guilds imply a hierarchical society, but not necessarily an organized state.

An Iron Age - without Copper

By about 4-500 BCE, the Nok were also smelting iron and making iron tools.  Archaeologists disagree whether this was an independent development (methods of smelting may have derived from the use of kilns for firing terracotta) or whether the skill was brought south across the Sahara. The mixture of stone and iron tools found at some sites supports the theory that West African societies skipped the copper age. In parts of Europe, the Copper Age lasted for nearly a millennia, but in West Africa, societies seem to have transitioned from the Neolithic stone age straight into the Iron Age, possibly led by the Nok.

The terracottas of Nok culture demonstrate the complexity of life and society in West Africa in ancient times, but what happened next? It is suggested that the Nok eventually evolved into the later Yoruba kingdom of Ife. The brass and terracotta sculptures of the Ife and Benin cultures show significant similarities with those found at Nok, but what happened artistically in the 700 years between the end of Nok and the rise of Ife is still a mystery.

Revised by Angela Thompsell, June 2015