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Nok Culture: Sub-Saharan Africa's First Civilization?

Nok Culture spanned the end of the Neolithic (Stone Age) and start of the Iron Age in sub-Saharan Africa, and may be the oldest organized society in sub-Saharan Africa; current research suggests it predated the founding of Rome by some 500 years. Nok was a complex society with permanent settlements and centres for farming and manufacturing, but we are still left guessing who the Nok were, how their culture developed, or what happened to it.

In 1943, clay shards and a terracotta head were discovered during tin mining operations on the southern and western slopes of the Jos Plateau in Nigeria. The pieces were taken to archaeologist Bernard Fagg, who immediately suspected their importance.  He began collecting pieces and excavating, and when he dated the pieces using new techniques, discovered what colonial ideologies said wasn"t possible: an ancient West African society dating back to at least 500 B.C.E. Fagg named this culture Nok, the name of the village near to which the first discovery was made.

Fagg continued his studies, and subsequent research at two important sites, Taruga and Samun  Dukiya, provided more accurate information on Nok culture. More of Nok"s terracotta sculptures, domestic pottery, stone axes and other tools, and iron implements were discovered, but due to the colonial dismissal of ancient African societies, and, later, the problems facing the newly independent Nigeria, the region remained understudied.

Looting carried out on behalf of Western collectors, compounded the difficulties entailed in learning about Nok culture.

It was not until the 21st century that sustained, systematic research was carried out on Nok culture, and the results have been stunning.  The most recent finds, dated by thermo-luminescence testing and radio-carbon dating, indicate that Nok culture lasted from around 1200 B.C.E.

to 400 C.E., yet we still do not know how it arose or what happened to it.

The sheer volume as well as artistic and technical skills seen in the terracotta sculptures suggests that Nok culture

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