Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Collapse of Empires: The Nok

The Nok appeared in the upland plateaus of Nigeria around  1,500 BCE, and seem to have disappeared somewhere around 200 AD.  The use of Empire is likely inappropriate as they seem to have straddled the divide between small villages and urbanized centers.  They were at the forefront of the introduction of iron making to Africa, possibly as early as 1600 BCE (for those who want an indigent African origin for Iron smelting), but certainly be 550 BCE.  They are now referred to as the Nok Culture.    There pottery first gained notice when discovered at a tin mine in 1943 near the town of Nok, which is of course how they were named.
They were located very near Cameroon which is sited as the center point for the great  Bantu Expansion Expansion into Southern Africa, but their role, if any, in that event is very unclear.  There influence has been discussed, but there is no known direct connection - no smoking gun.
The Nok are best known today for their terra cotta sculptures.  As terracotta figures go they are complex enough to believe that they originated from an earlier unknown tradition.

Nok Terracotta at Louvre
Nok Terracotta (from Wikipedia)

The map shows the areas associated with their artifacts.  Given the way that the rivers run in this area, it is likely that they filled up a considerably larger area of the upland Niger River drainage basin.  They had iron weapons, and some of their statues seem to indicate warlike events with bound naked captives being possible depictions of  prisoners of war.

But outside some art, and a few physical remains, there is not much known.  They were very advanced for their day.  How did it all end?

Roger Atwood, Archaeology, July/August 2011

Little is understood about how Nok society ended. Sometime after A.D. 200, the once-thriving Nok population declined, as attested to by a sharp drop in the volume of pottery and terracotta in soil layers corresponding to those years. Overexploitation of natural resources and a heavy reliance on charcoal may have played a role, says Breunig.

Even more puzzling is Nok’s legacy to later cultures. Art historians have long seen Nok as an isolated phenomenon, a splendid relic cut off from the sequence of African art over the next two millennia. Later civilizations in southern Nigeria had advanced metalworking skills and a tradition of naturalistic portraiture, and art historians are looking more closely at what they might owe to Nok. The most celebrated of these later cultures was Ife (pronounced EE-feh), whose people in southwestern Nigeria turned bronze into stunning portrait heads around A.D. 1300.

So we have yet another no-name people, greatly advanced in comparison to their contemporaries, and they are gone  - almost without a trace.

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