Nigeria: Primitive Peoples Do Not Produce Artwork of Anything like This Quality; Africa Was a Land of Glorious Civilizations That Existed All over the Continent. in 1928 One Such Civilization Was Accidentally Uncovered in the Forests of Nigeria. Robin Walker Reports

By Walker, Robin | New African, October 2006 | Go to article overview

Nigeria: Primitive Peoples Do Not Produce Artwork of Anything like This Quality; Africa Was a Land of Glorious Civilizations That Existed All over the Continent. in 1928 One Such Civilization Was Accidentally Uncovered in the Forests of Nigeria. Robin Walker Reports


Walker, Robin, New African


In central Nigeria, a hitherto unsuspected culture bloomed between 1000 BC and 1000 AD. Tin mining operations conducted in 1928 brought this civilisation out in the open. Lt-Colonel J. Dent Young, an Englishman, led mining operations in the Nigerian village of Nok, located in the Jos region. During these operations, one of the miners found a small terracotta of a monkey head. Other finds included a terracotta human head and a foot.

The colonel, at a later date, had these artifacts placed in a museum in Jos. In 1942, another artifact, clearly belonging to this same culture, was found, but this time in Jemma, some distance away. This find was brought to the attention of Bernard Fagg, an English cadet administrative officer. Fagg had a background as an archaeologist and by the mid-1940s wrote on this and other finds in the region. The ancient culture was now called the Nok Civilisation, named after the village in which the small terracotta monkey head was discovered.

Since then, around 400 pieces of Nok art have been recovered, characterised by their peculiar style and fine finish. Contradictory dates for the Nok artifacts do appear in the literature, but Maurer and Langevin, two modern scholars, declare that "after calibration, the period of Nok art spans from 1000 BC and 300 BC". The site itself is much older than this, however. There is evidence of human occupation as early as 4580 or 4290 BC. For the birth of civilisation in the region, however, more conservative dates have been suggested. Maurer and Langevin believe that their dating of the art pieces indicate that "the entire chronology of some civilisations from West Africa need to be revised. These cultures may have begun earlier, at the beginning of the third millennium before Christ".

The view that the Nok Civilisation had its genesis around 3000 BC more than supports an earlier reflection made by Prof Ekpo Eyo, the former head of the Nigerian museums network. He noted that, "the sculptures are so advanced that they must have had time to evolve ... the question must be left open so that people will know there is a possibility Nok might be much older than is generally accepted today".

The artifacts are mostly human statues made of terracotta. From a few inches in height to almost life-size, they depict people wearing rows of bracelets, necklaces, skullcaps, and in at least one instance, a cape. Most show the hair exposed--the coiffeurs are inventive and bold with highly individual plaits, ridges, locks and buns.

Fagg wrote that: "The Nok people must have taken just as many hours as the chic Lagos ladies of the 20th century to arranging their coiffures, or, to put them into their own historical period, the Mediterranean ladies who were living in their villas north of the Sahara."

The sculptors experimented with geometric shapes. Some of the heads are conical, but others are spherical or cylindrical. There are statues of elephants, monkeys, ticks and snakes, as well as human-animal combinations. There is a statue of a man amalgamated with a bird and also a statue of a sphinx.

The Nok people wore heavy collars made of stone beads. In their ears, noses and lips, they wore quartz cylinders. Important personages wore cotton clothes whilst others wore small aprons of leather, bark-cloth, beads or basketwork ornaments over the pubis. It is likely that they also indulged in body decoration and used elaborate ornaments.

Some of the statues are almost life-size, being four or more feet in height. They show the oldest known examples of African proportion, an aesthetic where the statue's head is one-quarter or one-third the size of the body. …

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Nigeria: Primitive Peoples Do Not Produce Artwork of Anything like This Quality; Africa Was a Land of Glorious Civilizations That Existed All over the Continent. in 1928 One Such Civilization Was Accidentally Uncovered in the Forests of Nigeria. Robin Walker Reports
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