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15 June 2011

The Roman Warm Period that began in around 200BC and lasted until the 3rd century AD seems to have had an effect on tropical Africa as well (not necessarily as far as climate is concerned but in so far as the flowering of culture has been ascertained). At www.archaeology.org/1107/features/nok_nigeria_africa_terracotta.html there is an article on the Nok culture of Nigeria which flourished between 500BC and AD200, producing terracotta art that has been highly prized by western collecters in the modern world and spawning a huge industry of burrowing humans digging in the ground for figurines that make a ripe sum of money. The Nok also had iron furnaces going back to 280BC, via C14 dates taken 50 years ago. These are the earliest dates for iron smelting south of the Sahara. However, very little is known about the people that created the Nok culture – or where they might have come from or how they obtained new technologies such as the smelting of iron from ore (rocks). It is assumed it had an origin in the Near East – possibly via the medium of the Phoenicians who are said to have sailed around the African continent seeking out trade outlets. Archaeologists have gone back to Nigeria – avoided like the plague for years because of restrictions and charges imposed by the government. The date for the beginning of the Nok culture has now gone back as early as 900BC – which is contemporary with the appearance of the Iron Age in Europe and the Near East, a surprising development as the Phoenician connection would seem to be neutered – especially as Nok was not located anywhere near the coast but in central Nigeria. The search is now on to find out how Iron Age technology spread not only into Africa but across all the continents – it was universal. Iron ore was a cheap source of metal whereas bronze was expensive and an elite metal. It seems there were lots of farmers and artisans out there that all eagerly took up the new technology somewhat like the information revolution in the modern world – mobile phones and the internet spreading  like wildfire. Terracotta technology is also important as the Nok represent Africa's earliest sculptural tradition outside Egypt. It was also contemporary with the Chinese terracotta revolution – but the two countries are separated by thousands of miles. Was it accidentally discovered in Nigeria at the same time roughly as in China or was there an intermediary – and if so, who were they? The Nok people mastered a wide sculptural application of terracotta technology but as we have seen the old idea that the Phoenicians were in some way involved is not really possible – as 900BC is too early. Of course, the C14 dating might be challenged – but that would not matter a great deal. We know that the Iron Age in the Levant began in around 900BC, if the revision of Iron II as envisaged by the likes of Bob Porter and Peter James has mileage – and this also ties in quite well with developments in the Levant regards the alphabet as a development out of Late Bronze Age Canaanite. You might say but surely Nigeria was a cultural backwater – why would the Iron Age have reached them so quickly? The answer might be that we underestimate the contacts via trade between North Africa and the lands south of the Sahara – especially in the valley of the Niger River. They were extensive during the Roman Empire – why not before then? There is also a region where the Nok people may have migrated from – Libya. As a result of some kind of calamity at the end of the Bronze Age (orthodox date in the 12th century BC but this might conceivably be revised somewhat closer to 900BC) a huge influx of migrants arrived in Egypt, becoming a serious threat to dynasty 20 pharaohs (and those of the late dynasty 19). After a period of climatic setback as a result of monsoon failure in the Ethiopian highlands and East Africa a Libyan dynasty emerged to rule Egypt. If people moved east there is no reason why they did not also move westwards. In fact, the Lake Chad region was especially affected by the growth of the Sahara desert and this region was heavily populated – and they were developed enough for dynasty 18 and 19 pharaohs to embark on trade missions there, crossing the Sahara on a route that has recently been discovered by German archaeologists (see earlier posts). Many of the Libyan migrants that flooded Egypt had origins in the northern Mediterranean litterol or the central zone around the Haggar massif. The nature of the calamity is actually described in an inscription attributed to Ramses III – and Merenptah said quite simply that the star of Anat had fallen – a large meteor or fragment of a comet, even possibly a Tunguska like atmospheric event. This does not explain how iron smelting reached the Nok – but presumably they maintained contact with the outside world and Africa immediately south of the Sahara was not a backward region of the world. Further research is ongoing and the answers to all of this may soon be forthcoming.

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