Nok civilisation

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Nok civilisation existed from 1500 BC to 200 AD. It may have been ruled by a monarchy or existed as a confederacy. We know from other African societies within close proximity that centralized states could break up into decentralized chiefdoms or vice versa. Evidence from the consistency of terracotta art over a one-thousand-year period however could suggest stability of the political structure which may have been possible under a socially hierarchical confederacy of communities or a region ruled by a monarchy. Its terracotta art was produced at the same time as the soldier-builders of Xian, China.

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The Nok civilisation was bordered by the region of modern-day Niger to the north, Markudi town to the south, Benin to the west, and Yola town in the East. Nok covered a geographical area of 30,000 square miles, a land area the size of Portugal. Its main currency may have been livestock, agricultural produce, pottery or artwork. It had an estimated population of 429,000 people. Contemporaries were the eighteenth to twenty ninth dynasties of Egypt: 1400 BC – 400 BC state.

Modern descendants of this civilisation may now live in the Hausa states, Jos, Taruga, and Samun Dukiya. 40-50 million people are native speakers of Hausa, a popular cross-cultural language in the North of Nigeria, and a further 2 million speak Hyam in certain historic Nok regions.


It isn’t clear what the original language of the Nok civilisation was, or whether any current Northern or Central (Middle Belt) Nigerian languages relate to the language or languages used from Ancient and Classical times. The area covered by the Nok civilisation, over 2500 years ago, currently includes language groups such as Hausa, Jukun, Berom, Afizere, Amo, Anaguta, Aten, Bogghom, Buji, Jipal, Chip, Irchip, Fier, Gashish, Goemai, Irigwe, Jarawa, Kofyar, Montol, Mushere, Mupun, Mwaghavul, Ngas, Piapung, Pyem, Ron-Kulere, Bache, Talet, Tarok, Yoruba, Igbo, Ibibio, Annang, Efik, Ijaw, Bini and Youm. Which language did they speak?

The original attire of the Nok civilisation is also not clear.

Food Supply

People of Nok kingdom may have hunted as well as domesticated certain animals. They may have domesticated different classes of domestic animals depicted in their figurines and terracotta art. Skulls and other types of bones would form the major evidence. Some of them were slaughtered for food or sold for commercial purposes. It’s of great interest to know how domestication of the animals was done but the evidence is limited at the archeological sites due to the acidic soil.

Pottery evidence suggests they also cultivated different sorts of crops and used these for porridge, including groundnuts, millet, traditional vegetables, and cowpeas. Pearl millet was the most preferred millet type crop. It has been identified to host large quantity of energy calories.

Cowpeas are a rich source of proteins. They were therefore cultivated for their rich nature of proteins. Most villages in the civilisation left material evidence of the crop. Starting from the north, towards the south, to the east, towards the west. Evidence of crop remains were found at the Nok sites as well as firewood regiments.

As we already know, Nok is located in geographical zone identified to be insufficient in rain distribution. It remained arid for many years. Meaning, only crops which could withstand drought could be cultivated.

The evidence of Nok civilisation was gathered through radio carbon dating of plant matter in terracotta, soil analysis and art analysis. Risks to the accuracy of dates exist if any of the specimens tested were contaminated by wood of an earlier period; as this could result in terracotta being of a later date even if the contaminating wood is of an earlier date.

Economic Activities

Nok civilisation may have used its produce of cultivated plants, meat or domesticated animals for trade. Their incredibly unique sculptures may have also been articles used for trade, religious objects of worship or works of art. The sculptures were more attractive and advanced than certain other works in West Africa at the time of discovery. Statues portrayed subjects in all manner of positions including figures sitting on horseback suggesting the civilisation may have had the use of horses.

These sculptures also depicted illness, warfare, love, dignitaries and music. Researchers uncovered one figurine of a man and woman kneeling in front of each other embracing. Another terracotta artwork depicted war captives bound in ropes around the necks and waists. Still another terracotta artwork depicted a figure with an open mouth as if singing. More than 2,000 works of terracotta have been discovered.

Figures usually have similarities in head shape, eye design and mouth design. Detail is sometimes included relating to headdresses or hairdo. In certain Nigerian cultures the hairdo may indicate status, being married or single, or being a priest or priestess.

Social organisation and military arts

The consistency of the type of clay used for sculptures over a period of more than 1,000 years may have suggested a geographically centralised system for terracotta production or a linage-based artisan class. In some Niger-Congo societies this has been found to accompany a centralized state. The successor Kwararafa confederacy however suggests that the civilisation may also have existed as a group of villages with clan chiefs but no central monarch. Societies which had hunting, iron smelting and the use of horses sometimes also had cavalry but it is not clear if the Nok civilisation developed those kinds of military arts. The Nok civilisation iron implements included spear points and knives which may have found military uses.

Types of Housing

Burial grounds, settlements and ritual sites and have been examined and evidence seems to suggest Nok civilisation may have built houses from wood and roofs from natural materials. The absence of stone structures suggests this would explain why material evidence did not survive the test of time and the elements. Housing structures from the medieval period in some cases have circular structure with a thatched roof but it is unclear if earlier housing construction followed this pattern or if it was rectangular like some other Niger-Congo cultures.


The Nok civilisation preceeded the Kwararafa confederacy, the Hausa states, the kingdoms of Kanem, Kano, Bornu and the Sokoto caliphate. The social structure, economic relations, religious systems and material technology developed in earlier times laid the foundation for these later kingdoms. It isn’t clear if the Nok civilisation moved south, east or west prior to its successor states.

The Nok civilisation left evidence of cultivation of grains, certain fruits, life-size ceramic fine art (that still draws crowds in premier museums around the world such as the Lourve, in Europe, museums in the United States, and museums in other global cities) and iron smelting technologies (iron tools and furnaces). It is not clear whether trees (which produce medicine, food and animal feed) were cultivated. These may have grown naturally from residue from clearing farming land.

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Images: University of Iowa Stanley Museum of Art


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Duncan E. Miller and N.J. Van Der Merwe, ‘Early Metal Working in Sub Saharan Africa’ Journal of African History 35 (1994) 1-36

Minze Stuiver and N.J. Van Der Merwe, ‘Radiocarbon Chronology of the Iron Age in Sub-Saharan Africa’ Current Anthropology 1968. Tylecote 1975.

A B Breunig, P. Nok. African sculpture in archaeological context. Frankfurt: africa magna, (2014).

Breunig, P. Nok – ein ursprung afrikanischer skulptur. Frankfurt: Africa Magna Verlag, (2013).

Breunig, Peter, Kahlheber, Stefanie, and Rupp, Nicole. Exploring the nok enigma. In: ANTIQUITY Vol 82, June 2008, Issue 316.

Chesi, G. & Merzeder, G. The Nok Culture: Art in Nigeria 2500 Years Ago, (2006).

Roger Atwood, Nok of Nigeria, Archaeology Magazine (2011)

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Nok civilisation

by Editorial Team time to read: 5 min