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Nok Art - The Earliest Sculptural Art in West Africa

Nok art refers to huge human, animal and other figures made out of terracotta pottery, found throughout Nigeria. They represent the earliest sculptural art in West Africa, dated between 500 BC and AD 500; and they co-occur with the earliest evidence of iron smelting in Africa south of the Sahara desert. Theromluminescence dates produced on the figures themselves have returned dates between between 580 BC-540 AD.

The figures are made of local clays with coarse tempers. They are nearly life size, although few have been found intact: most are known from broken fragments, representing human heads and other body parts wearing a profusion of beads, anklets and bracelets. Artistic conventions recognized as Nok art by scholars include perforations for pupils, geometric indications of eyes and eyebrows, and detailed treatment of heads, noses, nostrils and mouths. Many have exaggerated features such as enormous ears and genitals, which some scholars such as Insoll (2011) have argued are representations of diseases such as elephantiasis. Animals illustrated in Nok art include snakes and elephants; some are human and animal combinations and there is a recurring two-headed Janus theme.

A possible precursor to the art are figurines depicting cattle found throughout the Sahara-Sahel region of North Africa beginning in the 2nd millennium BC; later connections include the Benin brasses and other Yoruba art.

Most of the known examples of Nok Art are fragments found out of context, recovered from alluvial deposits when those deposits were excavated for tin extraction. Only a handful of archaeological sites have been tentatively identified as Nok culture, and scientific excavations are rare. None so far have established absolutely conclusive evidence of the art"s context.

Taruga, the first site identified with Nok art fragments, was discovered in the 1960s, by archaeologist Bernard Fagg who made the connection between Nok art and early iron smelting sites.

More recently, however, archaeologists have traced Nok culture by linking

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