Nok Culture

Anthropology: Significance of Nok Culture in Nigerian History

The Nok culture remained a mystery for many years, but as more of their civilization is revealing, we realize their significance. Nothing that exists today just happened. Everything, from our languages, and civilizations to our arts and even the locations where we live, is the consequence of thousands of years of evolution. Modern cultures owe a great deal to previous ones. 

Modern Nigerians may not know it, but they owe a lot to the cultures that existed thousands of years ago. The Nok’s were the first to develop large, settled communities. This tribe thrived in what is now Northern Nigeria from 900 BCE to 200 CE. For many years, archaeologists considered the Nok a fairly isolated civilization. They emerged out of nowhere and quickly vanished for no apparent cause. Still, recent research is filling in the gaps and demonstrating how important the Nok were in the evolution of ancient Africa.

Nigeria, the most contemporary African state, also has more traces of its creative heritage than any other region of the continent south of the Sahara. Unfortunately, the most ancient Nigerian civilization known to us is also the one about which we know the least. This civilization, known as the Nok culture, is the ancient iron-working civilization. The discovery of their remains of an exceptional aesthetic significance in Nigeria’s “Middle Belt” region during the last twenty years has happened.

The Discovery of Nok Culture

Bernard Fagg discovered the earliest creative clay sculptures portraying animals and humans in the neighbourhood of the hamlet of Nok in Central Nigeria around the middle of the twentieth century. The discovery happened by luck while mining for alluvial tin. The thinking was that they happened to belong to a homogenous entity because of their aesthetic similarities with the product of a single civilization. Later discoveries in additional locations resulted in a map of the Nok Culture, which spans around 310 miles in Central Nigeria from north to south. Radiocarbon and thermal luminescence dating place the Nok Culture between 500 BCE and 200 CE. However, there is also evidence of an earlier start. Nonetheless, Nok terracottas are the oldest figurative sculptures known from Sub-Saharan Africa. 

Since the first findings, only a few scientific excavations have been done at Nok Culture sites. Most occurred in the 1960s, but none had been thoroughly investigated or published. Moreover, none of the excavations yielded reliable information about the context of the paintings. As a result, nothing else is known outside the terracotta sculptures, and the designation as an archaeological “culture” is solely based on this viewpoint. The types of communities, as well as their economics and ecology, remain unknown. Very little characterization of basic traits has happened, such as the pottery of the Nok Culture. These civilizations’ social and political structures are likewise unknown, while masterpieces of art may provide the first indication of skill specialization in Sub-Saharan African cultures.

Lineage Before and After Nok Culture

According to the current study, the Nok Culture developed quickly about the middle of the first millennium BCE and perished abruptly less than a millennium later. The posing of the subject of what came before Nok or what came after Nok never seriously happened in literature. However, it is impossible to believe that the stunning portrayal of Nok art and the rising complexity of the connected settlements had not gone through any previous developmental stage. The discovery of the remains of such a phase happened in a small section towards the centre of the studied area.

There was a discovery figurines that differed from the traditional clay sculptures of the Nok Culture due to their rough design. However, other characteristics, like the shape of the eyes, a noticeable haircut, or the harsh inorganic temper of the clay, plainly indicate a link. Using OSL-dating of crystals taken from the temper of one of these sculptures is happening in order to determine if this art pushes back the roots of Nok deeper in time or manifests the demise of the Nok tradition. Recognition of the sites has led to the hope of getting data about their context, which will help determine whether they suggest a pre or after Nok era.

Nok Culture Society

Nok civilization was not centred on cities. Instead, they preferred to dwell in several villages, perhaps centred on an extended family. Each village most likely had its farm and livestock. The majority of the activity would have been agricultural, as evidenced by the numerous grain-grinding stones and other instruments found in every dwelling. Women conducted the majority of the effort in converting crops into food. We don’t know for sure, but archaeologists have discovered clay sculptures depicting men working with iron. Both terracotta and iron production occurred in these settlements. However, the discovery of more terracotta trash than iron waste, suggests that this was a specialist trade. 

Discovery of sites by archaeologists leads to the belief that they were utilizing them for religious or spiritual ceremonies. Some locations have one huge sculpture purposefully abandoned or buried in the earth. Occasionally, there are five or six similar sculptures. These sites are nearly invariably located distant from communities, implying that they were communal venues for worship or ritual. People may have gathered at these locations to reach agreements or settle disagreements. There is no trace of kingship, palaces, or temples indicating a governing elite. Even furnaces are synonymous with Nok culture. These were discrete iron-making sites, apart from towns or ceremonial sites. As previously stated, production of some iron was happening in houses, but most of it in these furnace sites. In addition, there were probably excellent blacksmiths who were of a different social level.

Nok Culture Terracotta Sculptures

Nok Culture Terracotta Sculptures
Credit: Google Arts & Culture

The Nok civilization produced the first clay sculptures of human heads and figures of humans and animals in Sub-Saharan Africa. Although the destruction of most of this section has happened, near-life-size clay heads were sometimes larger figures. Indeed, most terracottas were broken upon finding them. Relocation of these sculptures happened by water action, making it impossible to discern their original setting. 

Burning a hollow terracotta figure in an oven, causes the gases and water vapour to build and expand within, causing it to crack or even shatter. One alternative is to add vent holes in the figure, which Nok potters executed with artistic flair. The eyes, mouth, nose, and earholes were all given natural-looking apertures. Many entire figures sit or stand on a foundation that resembles an upside-down pot. A sitting person with one arm resting on one high knee is a typical pose.

A minority of figures are holding weapons, but the majority appear to be ritual participants. They are occasionally wearing specific attire and nearly always a considerable deal of beaded jewellery and pendants not worn every day. Male characters often have short square beards and peculiar moustaches that sprout just at the corners of the lips. A few characters are neither human nor wholly animal, but rather a creative hybrid of the two. There are persons, for example, with a bird-like beak, tail, and legs, as well as an elephant’s head with human-like eyes and a human-like forehead.

Use of Iron in Nok Culture

The Nok civilization is the first evidence of iron-smelting technology in Sub-Saharan Africa, which may have originated in Carthage to the north or, more likely given the enormous barrier of the Sahara desert, in Nubia to the east. It might be an indigenous innovation, although there is little evidence to support any of the three possibilities above the other two. Wherever the ideas came from, they allowed Nok to go from the Stone Age to the Iron Age, bypassing the Bronze Age of other cultures. 

At Taruga alone, uncovering of the remnants of up to 13 iron-smelting furnaces happened. Durable iron implements like hoes, handaxes, and cleavers increased agricultural efficiency. Depiction in clay were farmers in Nok cultivating cereals like sorghum and vegetables like pumpkins. Taruga uncovered the oldest known Nok culture settlement, occupied between the 4th and 2nd centuries BCE, based on radiocarbon evidence from charcoal recovered within the iron furnaces.

Despite the emergence of iron technology, they were still using stone tools, particularly bigger tools,  implying that metal was always a scarce commodity. Nok housing comprised of wattle and daub houses, which do not survive well, but many were built on a stone ring foundation, which does exist in place. Archaeology in the region continues in the twenty-first century CE, pushing back the historical period of the Nok civilization to as early as 900 BCE. Iron arrow- and spearhead finds would also imply that life was not always tranquil among the Nok and their rival tribes.

Nok Culture Pottery

Nok Culture Pottery
Credit: Die Nok-Kultur

The most common archaeological objects found at Nok sites are potsherds or pottery fragments. Most prominently, they were scoring the interior walls of shallow bowls to act as a grater. The use of these ceramic graters was most likely for food preparation.The most prevalent discovery was domestic pottery, which is classified into two categories. Bowls or shallow basins without lips are one style, whereas spherical pots with averted lips are another. A chemical study of the clay from all Nok pottery indicates it came from the same unknown source. This implies that the centralization of the industry is under royal authority.

Rigorous study of excavated pottery is going on since 2009, with the primary goal of attempting to establish a chronology. As a result, the ceramic analysis results are divided into three separate time periods:

Early Nok Period

From the Early Nok Period, pottery dates around 1500 to 900 BCE and is generally tiny and poorly preserved. They appear to be elaborately adorned with numerous intricate designs right below the rims of the containers and cover a substantial portion of the ceramic body. The lines on the ceramics appear to be extremely delicate or curved. Many lines are close together, and some even have crisscrossing lines beneath the rim. Pottery often featured everted rims and broad, thick rims.

Mid Nok Period

The Mid Nok Period, which lasted roughly from 900 to 300 BCE, saw a major increase in sites, terracotta fragments, and iron artefacts. Instead of the early period’s ornamentation, covering most of the pot, a decorative band is flanked by deep horizontal lines. This band occurs on the upper part of the pots or right under the rim of the bowls. Some bands feature sharp edges, impressive zigzag lines, an incised wave or arc, etc. Unlike the Early Nok period, Middle Nok ceramics exhibit a wider range of rim ornamentation. The rims include everted rims, open bowls, bowls with inverted rims, and incised line decorations on the rims’ lips.

Late Nok Period

The Late Nok era, which lasted around 300 to 1 BCE, contains just a few recognized sites. There is little pottery accessible for examination. However, there is a decline in the strictness of the decorative band based on the pottery that was discovered. Bands are still employed, but they are more intricately ornamented with extra patterning. There is also a recurring motif of body adornment. The range of rim sizes and varieties appears to be expanding even more than during the Mid Nok era.

Nok Culture Farming

The Nok culture, like the peoples of the Chad Basin and Kintampo culture, used a mixed cropping system of farming. They were cultivating cowpeas and pearl millet, as well as oily fruits. Domestication and farming of pearl millet in Pangwari, cowpeas and numerous vegetation types happened in this period. Between 1500 and 900 BCE, Nok peoples probably migrated into Nigeria’s central region, bringing the agricultural skills of producing tamed pearl millet.

Almost all Nok sites include charred plant remnants made up of fuel and plant material for cooking. Some areas have cowpeas, with their high protein content. So far, we only know that the Nok people were only cultivating pearl millet and cowpeas. The presence of multiple grinding stones at Nok sites suggests that the grains were processed into flour. Then they were using it to make a form of porridge. Another subsistence pattern adopted by the Nok people was hunting and gathering.

The Nok people most likely practised agroforestry, mixing farmed crops with healthy trees on the same land. These plots are biologically viable. Even inter-cropping of trees and many cultivated plant species was popular from the rain forest to the savannas. This practice dates back to the first millennium BCE, during the Nok civilization.

Nok Culture Settlements

Nok Culture Settlements

In Nigeria’s central region,  discovery of archaeological sites are Nok settlements based on evidence seen at the surface level. The discovery of anthropological evidence, specifically Nok terracotta remnants and Nok pottery, is Nok culture. The location of the bulk of Nok village sites is on mountaintops. The carving of a granite foundation at the Kochio village site determines the border of the basement of a settlement wall. In addition, the building of a megalithic stone barrier is seen around the confined townsite of Kochio.

Significance of the Nok Culture

Nok art and culture, in general, may have affected later cultures in the Niger River woodland regions. This is most notable in Igbo-Ukwu in the 9th century CE and Ife from the 11th to the 15th century CE. Certainly, the discovery of the Nok culture’s magnificent artworks offered a useful precedent. This convinced any residual sceptics that the works of those later societies were those of indigenous black Africans. As archaeology slowly and methodically adds to our knowledge and expands the historical spans of important West African societies, the currently uncertain linkages between them may become more solidly confirmed.


We have no idea what happened to the Nok. Their terracotta style appears to have gone out about the year 100 CE. They might be the forefathers of Nigeria’s present Yoruba culture. We think the Nok were among several sophisticated cultures in this region before Ghana and Mali. However, we know very little about them. We are, nevertheless, continuously discovering more about this period of African history. We’re learning that it had societies comparable to other rural cultures globally but also distinct.

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