Considered one of the oldest civilizations in the African continent, the Nok Culture spanned the demise of the Neolithic (Stone Age) and the rise of the Iron Age in sub-Saharan Africa. According to current research, it predates the founding of Rome by at least 500 years and was such a complex society, complete with permanent settlements and areas of farmlands and manufacturing. However, little is known about who the Noks were, how their culture evolved, and what later happened to signal its demise.
Around 1943, shards of clay and a terracotta head were dug up during tin mining operations on the southern and western valleys of the Jos Plateau in Nigeria. The broken pieces of archaeological discovery were taken to Bernard Fagg, an archaeologist, who immediately suspected their importance.
Thereafter, he began collecting pieces after pieces, while excavating for more. Using new techniques, it was later discovered that the artifacts were actually from an ancient West African society dating back at least 500 BC. Fagg named this culture Nok, after the village near where the discoveries were first made.
Fagg continued studying and excavating for more of the pieces, and two more important research sites in Taruga and Samun Dukiya provided more accurate and important information on Nok Culture. With new excavations, more and more artifacts were discovered, including terracotta sculptures, domestic pottery, stone axes, and other ancient tools such as iron implements.
However, due to a myriad of reasons, including the colonial dismissal of ancient African societies and, later, the series of problems facing the newly independent Nigeria, the region remained understudied. Another obstacle to getting more knowledge of Nok civilization was the mass looting carried out on behalf of western collectors, who often shipped such collections to private museums abroad.
A Complex Society
No further coordinated research was undertaken on Nok culture until the 21st century. When they were finally conducted, the result was both stunning and fascinating. The most recent findings, dated by thermo-luminescence testing and radio-carbon dating, show that Nok culture lasted between 1200 BC to 400 CE, yet not much is known about how it started or what ended it.
The sheer numbers, as well as the artistic dexterity seen in the terracotta sculptures, are an indication that Nok culture was a very complex and advanced society. This claim is further supported by the existence of iron working (a time-consuming and highly demanding skill undertaken by experts whose primary needs of food and clothing must be met by others), and archaeological findings have shown that the Nok had a steady sedentary life.
Some experts are of the opinion that the uniformity of the terracotta heads, which is indicative of a single source of clay, is strong evidence of a centralized well-planned state, although it could also be a pointer to a complicated guild structure. Guilds indicate a hierarchical society, not necessarily a well-organized one.
A Copper-less Iron Age
Around 4-500 BC, the Nok were already smelting iron and designing iron tools. Archaeologists are split whether this was evidence of an independent development or whether the skills were imported from the south across the Sahara.
The admixture of stone and iron tools discovered at some sites lend credence to the theory that West African societies conveniently skipped the Copper Age. In some parts of the European continent, the copper age lasted for close to a millennium, but in West Africa, it seems societies transformed straight from the Neolithic Stone Age into the Iron Age, most probably led by the Nok.
The terracotta heads of the Nok culture is an indication of the complex life and society in West Africa, even in ancient times. But questions linger as to what happened next. One possible theory is that the Nok eventually evolved into the Yoruba kingdom of Ife, although this has never been substantiated.
The brass and terracotta of the Ife and Benin cultures show striking similarities with those discovered at Nok, but what took place artistically in the 700 years gap between the end of Nok and the rise of the Ife kingdom will forever remain a mystery.
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