Hidden History: West Africa’s Nok Civilization

There can have been few archaeological discoveries made as a direct result of open-cast metal mining which have given such a revealing and intimate picture of a completely unsuspected yet widespread culture as those made at Nok, which is situated very close indeed to the geographical center of Nigeria.

The discovery was only fully appreciated in 1944, when an exceptionally fine head in Terra cotta was found twenty-five feet deep during tin-mining in the hills close to Jemaa. This was found to bear a striking stylistic resemblance to a small monkey’s head which had been dug up many years before at Nok itself …. The area in which the Nok culture has so far been found, and this we believe may be only a fraction of its actual distribution, has already spread to an area of three hundred miles by one hundred miles lying across the Niger and Benue valleys, mostly north of the confluence ….

[In 1956] we excavated two large cuts, or “paddocks,” in the area reserved for archaeological research at Nok and in the second were successful in finding substantial pieces of trunk wood in situ in the heart of the gray clay, in the youngest deposits in fact which had so far produced figurines. An analysis of these specimens gave the satisfactory date of approximately A.D. 200. Specimens from the gravels below in which figurine material was found gave a date of approximately 900 B.C. … It is now therefore an acceptable hypothesis that the Nok Culture flourished at least during the latter half of the first millennium B.C. and for some centuries into the Christian era. How much later the style persisted it is not yet possible to say, but evidence is now building up to indicating that the art style of the Nok Culture must have survived very much longer ….

There is now every reason to hope that further finds both in the area of the Nok Culture and in more or less dateable deposits in Yorubaland, Benin and elsewhere on the West Coast will confirm the basic homogeneity of so much of West African sculpture and its derivation from a traditional complex going back at least two thousand years, and at the same time will dispose of the widely held hypothesis that the Ife-Benin complex owes its syle and inspiration to origins outside West Africa(B.A.B. Fagg) All the bronzes so far known from Ife (apart from some evidently recent work) are in the naturalistic style, of which far more numerous examples have survived in terra-cotta. A study of the terra-cotta figures reveals stylistic affinities with those of the Nok Culture, already known from a large part of Northern Nigeria, but probably in reality even more widespread. Radio-carbon samples from the type-site suggest that the terra-cotta figures began to be made some time after 900 B.C., probably by a neolithic or early metal-age people; and that the culture may have continued to produce terra-cottas after A.D. 200 …. It looks very much as if the art of Ife developed from that of the Nok….

In Ife there are examples of terra-cottas which are almost certainly post classical, and lead on to the modern Yoruba style. In due time we may hope to find more examples of terra-cottas to illustrate the stages of development from the Nok to the classical Ife style. some of the sites which have produced Nok terra-cottas may be substantially later than the type-site itself,whilst we know that the apogee of the naturalistic style at Ife was not later than the middle of the fourteenth century. The interval between these tow dates represent a crucial phase in the history of most major peoples of Nigeria, to judge by traditions. In the case of the Yoruba, it seems likely that small but influential group of people came into Nigeria during this period and established themselves as rulers over an indigenous iron-using population making Nok terra-cottas ….

Frank Willet informs us that: “As yet there is no direct evidence of who these [newcomers] were, where they came from, when. They seem to have come from the east or the northeast, possibly from Meroe, which collapsed in the early fourth century, or perhaps they came a few centuries later from Zaghawa or from Christian Nubia. The Yoruba migration legends, both those about their origin and those of diffusion within Nigeria, almost certainly refer only to the ruling group. Yoruba Civilization appears therefore to be the result of a small intrusive ruling class, bringing ideas from outside, with a highly artistic indigenous population. T

he resulting social pattern seems to have borne some resemblance to that of the City States of Ancient Greece, but the unique achievement of the Yoruba was to have possessed such an evolved urban civilization without the knowledge of writing.” This ought to be investigated further as to what writing might have been to modern society, so was oral tradition(through the griots and the like) and the drum messaging been the means of writing-pre-writing.

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