The Nok Culture

The Nok Culture

The Nok were one of the earliest iron-working societies from western Africa, but they are also known for their pottery.


5 - 8


Geography, Human Geography, Social Studies, Ancient Civilizations


Nok Terracotta Bas-relief Sculpture

Not much is known of the Nok culture other than its iron works and terracotta sculptures, like this bas-relief.

Photograph by DeAgostini/Getty Images
Not much is known of the Nok culture other than its iron works and terracotta sculptures, like this bas-relief.

The Nok culture was one of the earliest known societies of Western Africa. It existed in modern-day Nigeria from around 500 B.C.E. to 200 C.E. The Nok farmed crops and used iron tools. Historians and archaeologists refer to this culture as the Nok culture because artifacts were first discovered near the modern Nigerian town of Nok. Nok culture is known for its unique terracotta sculptures and its early iron working.

In Nigeria in 1943, a visitor came to archaeologist Bernard Fagg and drew his attention to some unique-looking artifacts, which Fagg and his colleagues eventually determined belonged to a then-unknown culture now known as the Nok. These artifacts are mostly terracotta sculptures of human heads, human figures, and animals. One of the identifying characteristics of Nok sculptures is the triangular or oval-shaped eyes on human faces. Human figures also often have elaborate hair styles. Typically, humans are depicted seated, with their hands on their knees.

Archaeologists have analyzed the clay used by Nok people in their sculptures and discovered that all the clay likely came from the same source, suggesting that a central authority controlled the supply. Nok sculptures have been found across an area over 78,000 square kilometers (30,116 square miles), suggesting these artists, although they received their clay from a central source, were part of an expansive civilization.

Another important characteristic of the Nok culture is their use of iron technology. There is evidence of iron working in the region dating back to at least the fourth century B.C.E., and possibly even earlier. In the village of Taruga, Nigeria, archaeologists have found no fewer than 13 iron-smelting furnaces. Archaeologists have also discovered other iron artifacts from the Nok, like farming tools and weapons. However, while the Nok certainly had iron-smelting technology, they also used stone tools as well as metal, which suggests that metal materials were scarce and not widespread. The Nok are significant for being one of very few civilizations in the world that transitioned from stone tools straight to iron tools without first learning how to make copper or bronze tools.

The legacy of the Nok people is difficult to determine due to the mystery around their identity and origins. Some believe that the Nok’s artistry influenced the beautiful metalwork of the Ife people, who later lived in the area of Nigeria. The Ife people (who lived around the 11th – 15th centuries C.E.) were famous for detailed and lifelike metal sculptures of human heads. However, it is still unclear whether the Nok art and metal working influenced later African societies like the Ife. Aside from what we can learn from their terracotta artwork, most details of Nok culture, society, and social organization remain unknown.

Media Credits

The audio, illustrations, photos, and videos are credited beneath the media asset, except for promotional images, which generally link to another page that contains the media credit. The Rights Holder for media is the person or group credited.

Tyson Brown, National Geographic Society
National Geographic Society
Production Managers
Gina Borgia, National Geographic Society
Jeanna Sullivan, National Geographic Society
Program Specialists
Sarah Appleton, National Geographic Society, National Geographic Society
Margot Willis, National Geographic Society
Clint Parks
Roza Kavak
Last Updated

February 9, 2024

For information on user permissions, please read our Terms of Service. If you have questions about how to cite anything on our website in your project or classroom presentation, please contact your teacher. They will best know the preferred format. When you reach out to them, you will need the page title, URL, and the date you accessed the resource.


If a media asset is downloadable, a download button appears in the corner of the media viewer. If no button appears, you cannot download or save the media.


Text on this page is printable and can be used according to our Terms of Service.


Any interactives on this page can only be played while you are visiting our website. You cannot download interactives.

Related Resources