Outside Nubia and Egypt, the oldest sculptures so far discovered in Africa were produced in Northern Nigeria from about 2500 years ago. They were produced by what is today known as the Nok culture, named after the little town where the sculptures were first discovered in the 1920s. The Nok culture was also one of the earliest in the world to smelt iron, earlier indeed than Egypt. Nok sculpture was made of terracotta or fired clay. Most of the pieces recovered so far are only heads which presumably belonged to full figures. The rest of the figures might have been destroyed by erosion.
In Nok sculpture human figures are stylised while animal figures are very naturalistic. Art historians now believe that this may have to do with a tradition in many West African cultures which forbids naturalistic depiction of living human beings. In Nok human figures, the eyes, lips, and sometimes noses, are fairly geometricized to form triangles and spheres. Some of the heads are conical or ovoid. Others are elongated. The figures are adorned with lots of jewellery including beads. Many hairstyles depicted in these sculptures more than 2000 years ago are still worn today by people in the region.
Some Nok sculptures are up to 1.25 m high. They are all very sophisiticated, and show evidence of a highly advanced mastery of clay sculpture. They were all modelled, often with the sections made separately and then joined together. Some of the decorations were done by stamping or with the use of combs and roulettes. Some of the figures were polished to a high finish after firing.
Nok sculpture continued to flourish into the Middle Ages, and some form of terracotta still exists in the region today. Nok culture is equally believed to have influenced or had direct connections with some later cultures and art traditions in West Africa, especially those of the Yoruba kingdom of Ife.