A Sub-Saharan Conundrum: German Archaeologists Labor to Solve Mystery of the Nok

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Some 2,500 years ago, a mysterious culture emerged in Nigeria. The Nok people left behind bizarre terracotta statues -- and little else. German archaeologists are now looking for more clues to explain this obscure culture.

Half a ton of pottery shards is piled on the tables in Peter Breunig's workroom on the sixth floor of the University of Frankfurt am Main. There are broken pots, other storage vessels, a clay lizard and fragments of clay faces with immense nostrils.

The chipped head of a statue depicts an African man with a moustache, a fixed glare and hair piled high up on his head. He looks gloomy, almost sinister. Just a few days ago, the ceramics traveled 8,000 kilometers (5,000 miles) by sea from Nigeria, where they were unearthed.

Breunig runs an excavation near the Nigerian highlands of Jos, where the mysterious Nok culture once blossomed. Spanning more than 80,000 square kilometers (31,000 square miles), the tropical region they lived in was larger than Ireland. Its inhabitants lived in wooden huts and ate porridge made from pearl millet. Some women subjected themselves to bloody "scar ornaments" scratched into their breasts with knives. And, as archaeologists imagine it, smoke hung in the air as people fired masterly terracotta creations in kilns heated to 700 degrees Celsius (1,300 degrees Fahrenheit).

The most astonishing fact about what Breunig calls "a society without writing" is its age. It dates from around 2,500 years ago, a time when a wave of change in belief systems washed over other continents. Nok sculptors were contemporaries of Solon, Buddha and the early Mayans.

For years, people have believed that Africa was left behind at that time -- but Breunig knows better. "Around 500 B.C., the population exploded," he says. People that had been living a Stone Age-like nomadic existence suddenly settled. Breunig speaks of a "cultural Big Bang."

This region near the equator is still largely unexplored, and the German Research Foundation has allocated sizable funding toward that task. If the researchers from Frankfurt deliver promising results, they will continue to receive state funding until 2020.

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. A flag with the image of Goethe, the symbol of Breunig's university, flutters on a mast. The Germans have drilled wells, and solar panels provide electricity.

Conditions there are hard. Murky water sloshes from the pump, and the solitary lightbulb in the main bricked-lined hut is the only one within 100 kilometers (62 miles). At night, owing to the heat, the researchers have gotten used to sleeping under the night sky, as wild dogs howl in the distance.

Shards, Shards Everywhere

Bathed in the light of the morning sun, the team sets forth. With shovels, pickaxes, laptops and GPS navigation devices in tow, the excavators trudge past an enchanting tree savannah and granite hilltops rising like small islands.

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. Burrowing animals occasionally dislodge them from their original resting places.

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. The eyes are always triangular, the pupils are pierced, and the eyebrows are high and arched. They look sedate and immersed in their thoughts. Lightning-shaped tattoos adorn their cheeks.

Scientists are puzzled about who could have created this collection of curiosities. How, they ask, could such a fanciful world emerge 10 degrees latitude south of the equator and 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, which include geologists and paleoethnobotanists, have now used state-of-the-art analytical devices to examine this area. They use X-ray fluorescence devices, for example, to detect shattered bones, and their infrared cameras should make the remnants of buildings visible. In their initial findings, they 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. The project could finally shed some light on a phenomenon that is one of the biggest mysteries of early history.

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Photo Gallery
Photo Gallery: Traces of Nigeria's Mysterious Nok People
The diffusion of the Nok culture in modern-day Nigeria. Zoom
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The diffusion of the Nok culture in modern-day Nigeria.



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