The Archaeology of Complex Societies: A project presented by the graduate students of The Ohio State University Department of Anthropology


Major developments such as animal domestication, crop cultivation, specialization of labor, and the emergence of metallurgy in ancient Africa are often neglected in popular archaeological discourse. Appearing around 1500 BCE and lasting until approximately 300 CE, the Nok culture of present-day Nigeria provides insight into many of these important landmarks in the development of the civilized state.

Nok culture existed during a time when decreased rainfall in northern Africa led to the solidification of the Sahara Desert and the rise of inhospitable environments in west Africa. It has been hypothesized that climate change may have driven new settlement patterns across the continent. Nok settlements have been discovered in a wide variety of geographic forms within the savanna woodlands, or “wet” savanna, including plateaus and river valleys. It appears as though the Nok exhibited no geographic preferences for different types of land, as soil may have been equally fertile in all areas.  

Economy and Food Subsistence
Material remains from the Nok, such as charcoal fragments and burned firewood, reveal a pattern of swidden agriculture, in which shifting patterns of cultivation left fallow patches of land. Evidence of cultivated crops such as millet, cassava, guinea corn, and maize in river valleys leads archaeologists to hypothesize that the Nok exhibited the earliest forms of sedentary farming in West Africa. Despite the clear presence of agriculture and permanent settlements, it appears as though the Nok left no permanent changes to the landscape, and there is no evidence of domesticated animals. However, this pattern reveals potential problems of preservation in West African archaeological sites; tropical soil is typically high in acidity, wherein bones are easily dissolved.

Archaeological evidence shows increased specialization of labor across the Nok society. For example, iron-smelting technology was aggregated in areas that were separate from artistic sculptures. True to their time period, the Nok’s technology existed on the boundary of the Iron age (2000 BCE - 1200 BCE). While popular discourse often stresses three age periods progressing from Stone to Bronze to Iron, these evolutionary typologies may not map well onto prehistoric African societies, as we have no evidence for bronze technology in the Nok. The archaeological record shows evidence of grinding stones, stone axes, pots and pottery graters, as well as iron objects and metallurgy technology. New iron-smelting technology such as reduction furnaces have been preserved and recovered, leading many academics to attribute the origins of iron production in Africa to the Nok.

Social Organization
Current literature does not provide much detail about the social organization of the Nok. However, changing environments may have driven the emergence of social organizations that were unprecedented in the West African region. It is further hypothesized that iron objects, which are found across Nok settlement sites, may have been markers of status. The iron objects are typically found in clustered patterns, and such material remains are relatively scarce.

Arguably the most intriguing aspect of the Nok is their artistic remains. Over 1,700 terracotta figurines or fragments have been recovered from Nok sites, usually from alluvial mud. These figurines depict both animals and humans. It has been hypothesized that they served as the archetype for later Nigerian / Yoruba art. Archaeologists often argue that aesthetically valuable figures contain social and religious information about the societies which produced them, and indeed the Nok figurines are thought to have had a wide variety of uses, including but not limited to ancestor portrayal, grave markers, charms, or finials for roofs.

The people of Nok had developed iron-smelting technology and had quite a rich material culture, but they did not develop urban centers. Many theorists argue that urban populations are a hallmark of complexity. Does this make the Nok more or less complex? Does our understanding of them change because so few of their artifacts have been preserved? It has also been proposed by some researchers that changing environmental pressures helped to form  new settlement patterns in West Africa. In what ways could environmental pressures help drive increasing complexity as an adaptive strategy for populations in the region?

All photos are sourced from: Breunig, P. 2013. Nok: African Sculpture in Archaeological Context. Frankfurt, Germany: Africa Magna Verlag and  


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