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Terracotta statues made by the Nok. (Public Domain)

The Highly Advanced and Mysterious Ancient Civilization of the Nok

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The remarkable civilization of the Nok was first discovered in 1928 when a wealth of unique terracotta artifacts was unearthed by tin miners in the southern part of Kaduna state in central Nigeria. Since then, extensive archaeological excavations and research into the Nok have revealed that they may have been one of the first complex civilizations in West Africa, existing from at least 900 BC until their mysterious disappearance in around 200 AD.

The Nok were an extremely advanced society, with one of the most complex judicial systems of the time, and the earliest producers of life-sized terracotta in the Sub-Sahara.  Archaeologists have also found stone tools, rock paintings and iron implements, including fearsome spear points, bracelets, and small knives.

Terracotta Statues

By far the most enigmatic and intriguing aspect of the Nok Culture were their Terracotta statues, described by the mémoire d'afrique, which houses a gallery of the statues, as “extraordinary, astonishing, ageless, timeless and almost extraterrestrial”.

The figures, which date back to at least 500 BC, are almost always people with large, mostly elongated heads with almond-shaped hollow looking eyes are parted lips. These unusual features are particularly perplexing considering that the statues have been constructed accurately with relative proportions of the head, body and feet, leading some to use the term ‘extraterrestrial-looking’ when describing them.

Nok terracotta figurine (CC by SA 3.0)

Nok terracotta figurine ( CC by SA 3.0 )

Some pottery figures from the Nok culture seem to depict individuals with physical conditions such as elephantiasis or facial paralysis. The exact purpose of these "diseased" depictions remains unknown. It is possible that they were intended to serve as protective talismans against illness, but this is still speculation.

Microscopic inspection of the clay used in the terracotta shows it to be remarkably uniform over the whole Nok area, suggesting that the clay came from a single, yet-undiscovered source.  Not much is known about the purposes of these peculiar sculptures, but some theories have suggested they were used as charms to prevent crop failure, illness and infertility, while others have suggested that they represent high status individuals who were worshipped by the people.

However, the construction of life-sized statues isn’t the only evidence of the advancement of their society. Research has revealed that the Nok people had a highly developed system of administration to ensure law and order.

Area of the Nok culture (CC by SA 30)

Area of the Nok culture ( CC by SA 30 )

Advanced Metalworking

The Nok civilization is well known for its impressive metalworking skills, which were highly advanced for their time. The Nok people crafted intricate objects using iron and copper alloys, creating weapons, tools, and adornments. Their metalworking techniques included casting, forging, and welding, which allowed them to produce objects of various sizes and complexities. Many of their metal objects were decorated with intricate patterns and designs, such as geometric shapes and stylized animals, showcasing their artistic abilities. The Nok metalworking was not only functional but also aesthetically pleasing.

The Nok people's metalworking skills were also an important factor in their economy and social status. They traded their metal objects with neighboring communities, which helped to establish their reputation as skilled craftsmen. The ability to produce iron tools and weapons gave the Nok people an advantage over their neighbors, allowing them to clear more land for farming and defend their communities. The production of metal objects also played a significant role in the development of social hierarchy, as those with access to metal objects were seen as more powerful and important in society.

Judicial System

It is a known fact that the Nok’s judicial system pre-dates the western judicial system. The Nok people created classes of courts used for adjudicating cases from minor civil cases, such as family disputes and false allegations, to criminal cases such as stealing, murder and adultery.  The people believed that every crime attracts a curse which was capable of destroying whole family and therefore must be uncovered to avoid the consequences.

The suspect was brought before an open court for traditional oath taking, which involved standing between two monoliths facing the sun, the most supreme god called Nom. The suspect then swore to tell the truth.  Cases that cannot be resolved in the open court are taken to the high court which sits within an enclosed shrine.

The court was presided over by the Chief Priest and various clan heads. Anyone found guilty was fined goats and chicken for sacrifice to the gods and local wine for the chief priest.  The town would then declare a day of celebration on which the people would thank the gods for their graces in successfully resolving the issue and averting doom for the people.

Mysterious Disappearance

A sharp drop in the volume of pottery and terracotta in soil layers suggests that the once-thriving Nok population declined fairly rapidly and no evidence can be found of their existence after 200 AD, nor has any evidence been found which suggests a reason for their disappearance.  Some have suggested that overexploitation of natural resources and a heavy reliance on charcoal may have played a role, while others have said it could have been any number of different possibilities including climate change, a pandemic, invasion, epidemic or famine.

The Nok civilization left a remarkable cultural legacy for the people that followed after them, but there are still many unanswered questions about the Nok, from why they disappeared to the true purpose and nature of the unique and mysterious terracotta statues.

Top image: Terracotta statues made by the Nok. (Public Domain)

By Joanna Gillan

References

Getz, T. Ancient Agrarian Societies: Nok Society . Available at: https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/whp-origins/era-3-cities-societies-and-empires-6000-bce-to-700-c-e/33-comparing-early-agrarian-societies-betaa/a/read-ancient-agrarian-societies-nok-society-beta

Metropolitan Museum of Art. 2000. Nok Terracottas . Available at: https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/nok/hd_nok.htm

National Geographic. The Nok Culture . Available at: https://education.nationalgeographic.org/resource/nok-culture/

 

Comments

Pete Wagner's picture

"stone tools, rock paintings and iron implements"

I don't know, those three things are a pretty wide technological spread, if not utter mismatch.  Where are the masonry foundries and evidence of metal-working?  And how long would an iron implement last before rusting away into dust?  Are there similar bronze implements – same design?  But ALWAYS need a clear differentiation between 'pre' and 'post' Ice Age cultures.  Were ‘the Noks’ a Sumerian colony – a Semite people, and if so, who were there before them or were supplanted by them?  I'd say, go back, revisit the evidence, look at the skull shapes with respect to the timeline, validate the dating, ...have it add up.  
 

Nobody gets paid to tell the truth.

I’ve never heard of Nok. obviously, I need to do some research. Thank you for posting

Charles Bowles's picture

DWWEBB, if you really want to know about how the NOK people established such an elaborate Judicial system, I would advise you to read a few books on NOK civilization, because this is only a short article which gives a few “HIGHLIGHTS” about some of the creations of this highly sophisticated culture which existed at least 3000 years ago...This article will not cover all the information in a few paragraphs or less.  I am quite sure that all of the highlights were researched over the past century, and you shouldn’t expect all of the facts to be in this one small article...Come on fella, please use your senses and stop complaining about something that disturbs you because it mentions the sophistication of an anceint Black African culture, which you would like to doubt ever existed...later

Charles Bowles

Charles Bowles's picture

It appears to me that we know just as much about the NOK as we know about any ancient culture/civilization that existed 3000 years ago,or should I say before ancient Greece became an advanced civilization.  We examine artifacts, such as statues, pottery, drawings, languages, study various tools and instruments used and almost anything that would be connected to that culture..We study the NOK culture using the same methods that we study ancient Black African civilizatiions such as ancient Zimbabwe, PUNT (modern day Somalia), CUSH/AKUM (modern day Ethiopa), NUBIA (modern day Sudan), SUMERIA (modern day Iraq), LEVANT (modern day Israel, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon)...NOK ISN’T ANY DIFFERENT FROM THE STUDIES OF THESE OTHER ANCIENT CULTURES THAT ONCE EXISTED ON EARTH...One of the facts revealed in this article is that the NOK people were indeed sophisticated jurists when it came to judicial fairness, punishment, as well as rehabilitation to prevent reoccurrence of crimes which tends to destabilize societies, it was ahead of present day so call Western Nations.    Also, the art of African “Lipombo” (elongation of the skull into a cone shape) which can be observed by the NOK sophisticated sculptors, can be viewed as an art by many ancient Black Africans, including the Egyptians/Nubian’s which used this “Cranial Deformation” to distinguish Black Rulers from ordinary citizens within many different African societies, even the present day Mangbetu Tribe of the Congo who still practices this same art to a lesser extent than in ancient times….

Charles Bowles

Because they just do ok. They found about 10 statues and these where so detailed that they where able to figure out what year these people had lived in, what languages they spoke and their extremely complex judicial system. Studying these little peice of statues they where also able to figure out what exactly these people believed in like religion and myths and what these people ate and how healthy they where. In fact they had a really complex and sophisticated health care system and could even transplant livers and kidneys and where known to operate on the brain to cure disorders like autism. And to think that these people lived 200 thousand years ago and where more advanced than we are today. Some even believe that they had flying transportation, Books have been written about this.

Oh to get back to your question, someone found like 10 little peices of statues in Nigeria. And this is ancient-origins so thats why we know so much

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