BHM Day 5: Ancient Civilization in West Africa


On the west side of Africa was another advanced and densely settled civilization that has been recently uncovered by archeologists in Nok, Nigeria. For want of a better name, it is called the Nok culture and dates back to 1000 B.C. By 550BC, the Nok people were smelting and forging iron in addition to using stone tools for farming and animal husbandry. The Nok discovered that they were able to smelt iron by heating certain rocks to a high temperature – 13 furnaces have been uncovered to date. There is great debate as to whether the Nok independently learned to work with iron, or that they were taught, but this is the earliest date for iron smelting in sub-Saharan Africa. Especially of interest is the fact that the Nok went directly from stone to iron, bypassing the Copper and Bronze Ages that civilizations went through in other parts of the world.


Another fascinating thing that has been discovered about the Nok to date is their ability to make life-sized terra cotta (finely fired clay) sculptures in addition to wood and metal. These sculptures are the earliest of their kind in sub-Saharan Africa. The sculptures show men and women with bold abstracted features including triangular eyes and perforated pupils, noses, mouths, and ears. Perhaps the most striking aspects of Nok sculptures are the elaborately detailed hairstyles and jewelry that adorn many of the figures.

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Many of the figures were found around the furnaces, and there is speculation that the figures were objects of worship to aid in blacksmithing and s melting. Archeologists consider art to be evidence of a stable society, one that has the time to make art instead of tools, and the ability to appreciate art. Figures have been found depicting illness, warfare, love and music. For example, one team of archeologists has found a sculpture of a man and woman kneeling in front of each other, their arms wrapped around each other in a loving embrace, and also several bare-buttocked prisoners with ropes around their necks and waists. Another figure, which has a skull for a head and wears an amulet around his neck, is shaking two instruments resembling maracas. There is also a figure of a man with a wispy moustache, mouth open, as if in speech or song, and one of a man playing a drum resting between his legs, possibly the earliest depiction of musical performance in sub-Saharan Africa.


Archeological work on uncovering and understanding the Nok culture has been going on for about 90 years, but has been slow for a variety of reasons including looting of the artwork and issues of access from the Nigerian government. I can only hope that the historical significance of this culture will attract enough attention to overcome any difficulties in finding out more about these people.


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