The Nok culture was one of the earliest known societies of Western Africa. It existed in modern-day Nigeria from around 500 B.C.E. to 200 C.E. The Nok farmed crops and used iron tools. Historians and archaeologists refer to this culture as the Nok culture because artifacts were first discovered near the modern Nigerian town of Nok. Nok culture is known for its unique terracotta sculptures and its early iron working.

In Nigeria in 1943, a visitor came to archaeologist Bernard Fagg and drew his attention to some unique-looking artifacts, which Fagg and his colleagues eventually determined belonged to a then-unknown culture now known as the Nok. These artifacts are mostly terracotta sculptures of human heads, human figures, and animals. One of the identifying characteristics of Nok sculptures is the triangular or oval-shaped eyes on human faces. Human figures also often have elaborate hair styles. Typically, humans are depicted seated, with their hands on their knees.

Archaeologists have analyzed the clay used by Nok people in their sculptures and discovered that all the clay likely came from the same source, suggesting that a central authority controlled the supply. Nok sculptures have been found across an area over 78,000 square kilometers (30,116 square miles), suggesting these artists, although they received their clay from a central source, were part of an expansive civilization.

Another important characteristic of the Nok culture is their use of iron technology. There is evidence of iron working in the region dating back to at least the fourth century B.C.E., and possibly even earlier. In the village of Taruga, Nigeria, archaeologists have found no fewer than 13 iron-smelting furnaces. Archaeologists have also discovered other iron artifacts from the Nok, like farming tools and weapons. However, while the Nok certainly had iron-smelting technology, they also used stone tools as well as metal, which suggests that metal materials were scarce and not widespread. The Nok are significant for being one of very few civilizations in the world that transitioned from stone tools straight to iron tools without first learning how to make copper or bronze tools.

The legacy of the Nok people is difficult to determine due to the mystery around their identity and origins. Some believe that the Nok’s artistry influenced the beautiful metalwork of the Ife people, who later lived in the area of Nigeria. The Ife people (who lived around the 11th – 15th centuries C.E.) were famous for detailed and lifelike metal sculptures of human heads. However, it is still unclear whether the Nok art and metal working influenced later African societies like the Ife. Aside from what we can learn from their terracotta artwork, most details of Nok culture, society, and social organization remain unknown.

The Nok Culture

Not much is known of the Nok culture other than its iron works and terracotta sculptures, like this bas-relief. 

archaeologist
Noun

person who studies artifacts and lifestyles of ancient cultures.

Noun

material remains of a culture, such as tools, clothing, or food.

bas-relief
Noun

carving or sculpture in which figures project slightly from a flat background.

Noun

complex way of life that developed as humans began to develop urban settlements.

Noun

learned behavior of people, including their languages, belief systems, social structures, institutions, and material goods.

iron
Noun

chemical element with the symbol Fe.

iron work
Noun

objects, such as weapons or art, made from iron.

smelt
Verb

to separate metal from ore by using heat.

society
Noun

large community, linked through similarities or relationships.

terra-cotta
Noun

type of brown-orange clay.