|22 August 2009
The mystery of Nigeria's Nok culture
Some 2,500 years ago, a mysterious culture emerged in Nigeria. The Nok people left behind bizarre terracotta statues - and little else. Archaeologists are now looking for more clues to explain this obscure culture.
Peter Breunig runs an excavation near the Nigerian highlands of Jos, where the mysterious Nok culture once blossomed. The tropical region they lived in was larger than Ireland; its inhabitants lived in wooden huts and ate porridge made from pearl millet. "Around 500 BCE, the population exploded," Breunig says. People that had been living a Stone Age-like nomadic existence suddenly settled. He speaks of a "cultural Big Bang."
With the help of some locals, German researchers set up their base last spring, which consists of nine mud huts in the village of Janjala. In their excavations, the team encounters hardly any other traces of life. There are no skeletons preserved in the earth since the acidic soil dissolved all bones. Like their cemeteries, the temples and huts of the Nok have disappeared without a trace. No one knows what their farm animals, streets or religious ceremonies were like. But the shards of clay statues are everywhere - on rock slopes, in ancient refuse pits and in open spaces. The largest of these impressive figures can stand up to one meter (3.3 feet) tall and resemble what might be kings or members of a social elite. Others wear horned helmets or carved-out gourds on their heads. A third of these figures are women.
The clay figures are strangely uniform, almost as if they had been mass produced. Scientists are puzzled about who could have created this collection of curiosities. How, they ask, could such a fanciful world emerge far away from the rest of the world's civilizations? Particularly perplexing is the question of how the Nok people smelted iron. Excavators have found iron bracelets, arrowheads and knives. No sub-Saharan people made anything comparable at the time.
The German researchers have learned that the Nok lived on millet, cowpeas and an olive-like fruit. And Breunig now believes that the statues "were made centrally in some large workshops." Next winter, the high-tech caravan of researchers will move back into the bush with up to 40 excavation assistants. To this day, countless Nok villages lie untouched beneath the earth. In Ungwar Kura, for example, the team recently came across more than 130 millstones, which suggests that there was once a large village there.
For the time being, though, the purpose of the Nok statues remains unclear. And then there's still the question of whether these objects have anything to do with the Nok people making contact with other people. "There's no doubt that the Nok will continue to baffle us," Breunig says. "We're unearthing a magnificent part of the history of sub-Saharan Africa."
Source: Spiegel International (21 August 2009)
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