Ancient Africa

Ancient rock art from the Sahara DesertAncient rock art from the Sahara Desert Among the earliest forms of art in Africa are paintings left on rocks in the Sahara Desert in around 8000 BC. At this time, the Sahara was a green and fertile region. Bands of hunter-gatherers lived there, hunting wild animals to eat and gathering plants. As the Sahara dried up, they moved away. Some went east to found the ancient Egyptian civilization. Others moved south. By about 1000 BC, some people in north and west Africa had learned to mine and work metals such as bronze and iron. As they spread over Africa, they took this knowledge with them.

Bantu migrations

Bantu people were farmers and animal herdersBantu people were farmers and animal herdersBantu is the name given to a group of languages that has its origins in the Niger and Congo regions of west Africa. Around 2000 BC, these peoples began to spread out to the south and east, slowly migrating across the whole of Africa that lies south of the equator. They took with them knowledge about growing crops and working iron.

A terracotta rider and horseA terracotta rider and horse

Nok culture

The earliest examples of African sculpture were found at Nok in Nigeria. These terracotta heads and figures date from between 500 BC and AD 200. They may have inspired artists of a later civilization at Ife in Nigeria. The Nok people found out about ironworking in around 400 BC, probably from traders crossing the Sahara Desert. Iron was perfect for making axes (which were used for felling trees) and farming tools. It was smelted (separated from the rock) in a clay furnace. Bellows were used to make the fire hot enough to melt the iron. The molten metal ran into a pit underneath the fire.

Nok people making iron toolsNok people making iron tools

Consultant: Philip Parker

The world's earliest known artworks come from Blombos Cave in South Africa, where carvings and bead jewellery dating from about 80,000 BC were discovered.

Some Nok pottery figures seem to show figures suffering from ailments now identified as elephantiasis and facial paralysis. The figures may have been intended to protect against illness.

Many Nok scultpures had pierced eyes, nose, mouth and ears. This suggests the Nok people themselves would have worn jewellery attached to their bodies: bead necklaces, earrings, nose rings and bracelets.

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