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But other interpretations, including the concentration of skilled specialists, are no less probable at the moment," says Breunig.

"I think there was a set of respected, central rules that were enforced either through authorities, or through common beliefs, or both." The triangular eyes and parted lips of this Nok terracotta figurine are characteristic of an artistic style that endured for millennia even after the Nok culture disappeared.

On a black granite mountain towering over the savannah, Rupp and her team are digging neat trenches at the summit.

Within minutes, they start to find pottery sherds, grinding stones, and fragments of red terracotta sculpture of the type first found by Fagg.

But when Fagg subjected plant matter found embedded in the terracotta to the then-new technique of radiocarbon dating, the dates ranged from 440 B. He found 13 such furnaces, and terracotta figurines were in such close association—inside the furnaces and around them—that he postulated the terracottas were objects of worship to aid blacksmithing and smelting.

Carbon dating of charcoal inside the furnaces revealed dates as far back as 280 B.

Unlocking the secrets of West Africa's earliest known civilization A terracotta head created by the Nok culture, one of ancient West Africa's most advanced civilizations, emerges at a dig site near Janjala, Nigeria.(Courtesy Peter Breunig) In 1943, British archaeologist Bernard Fagg received a visitor in the central Nigerian town of Jos, where he had spent the previous few years gathering and classifying ancient artifacts found on a rugged plateau.

It could, says Breunig, support the idea of a unified Nok state or central authority of some kind."The homogeneity of the clay used for terracotta might indicate centralized production.

They may have been the first complex civilization in West Africa, existing from at least 900 B. In 1959, anthropologist George Murdock quipped that for every ton of earth moved by archaeologists on the Nile, a teaspoon is moved on the Niger.

Scholarship has also been hampered by an almost 40-year campaign of looting at Nok sites fed by the growing appetite for African antiquities among collectors in the United States and Europe. Instead of scientific exploration, the Nok became a victim of illegal digging and international art dealers," says Peter Breunig, of the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany.

Its coarse, grainy surface and realistic modeling immediately identify it as distinctively Nok.

In his classic survey of African art, Frank Willett wrote that the Nok created Africa's earliest sculptural tradition outside of Egypt.

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