It isn’t unusual to hear it declared with certainty that the people and cultures that make up Nigeria are strangers forced into nationhood. There’s no doubt that they were forced by colonial rule into one political entity. But nothing could be further from the truth than to assert that they’re strangers to one another.
All ethnic groups and cultures in Nigeria have one form of relationship or another with their immediate neighbours, and by extension all are connected. In some cases, the connections are recent and known; in others they have become remote and forgotten. But the evidence of interconnections still abound, and sometimes they’re hiding in plain view.
There’s evidence that the area known today as Nigeria has been occupied by humans for more than 10,000 years, and there are indications that they go even further back. Ironworking slags found around Nsukka in southeastern Nigeria have been carbon-dated to more than 10,000 years, which harks to the beginnings of agriculture as tools to cut trees, dig the soil and generally tame the environment more efficiently were needed.
Among key highlights of discoveries of Nigeria’s cultural and historical treasures include the Dufuna canoe, Nok sculpture, Igbo-Ukwu bronzes, the Nsibidi writings script as well as the Ife and Benin brass works, to name a few.
The Dufuna Canoe
Discovered by a Fulani herdsman in 1987 while digging a well, the canoe was found by carbon dating to be between 8,000 and 8,500 years old, making it the oldest known boat or water transport vessel in Africa and the third-oldest in the world. The discovery location was Komadugu Gana River in Yobe state, hinting at a time when the Lake Chad covered a much wider area than today. It is currently kept for public viewing in Damaturu, the state capital.
Nok is the name of a village in the tin – mining area of Nigeria’s central plateau region where significant quantities of early iron – age terracotta sculptures were discovered in 1928. Carbon dating of the items placed their antiquity as far back as 2,500 years old. Two major archaeological sites were subsequently found in the area at Samun Duking and Taruga.
Archaeologists who have studied Nok sculpture believe they represent an artistic style that was prevalent among iron – working farming communities in that region of West Africa rather than the art style of a specific community. The discovery of Nok sculpture in the course of mining for tin in the colonial era sparked a looting spree by European booty hunters that saw hundreds, perhaps thousands, excavated and taken away without proper study.
A dig behind his house in 1938 led Isaiah Anozie to an accidental find in the town of Igbo Ukwu in southeastern Nigeria. Subsequent archaeological excavations yielded several bronze objects, including a short staff, an ornamental vessel, a pendant and a male head with Igbo scarification marks known as ichi, the head of a ram and a manila.
The objects, and those from two other sites excavated in the town, were dated to the ninth century or earlier, making them the oldest known bronze works in Africa. Unlike the 14th and 15th century brass works of Benin and Ife (made of zinc and lead), the Igbo Ukwu objects were genuine bronzes being made of zinc, lead and copper alloys. The bronzes made by the sophisticated lost-wax method were associated with the Nri epoch of Igbo civilisation, when priest-kings devoted to the veneration of Ala, the earth, the soil, oversaw an early agricultural revolution that spawned the large population of the region.
Nsibidi is a writing script that has featured in a number of languages in southeastern Nigeria and parts of Cameroon that dates as far back as 5,000 B.. Primarily attributed to the Ejagham or Ekoi people, who straddle the southeastern Nigeria-Cameroon border, its use spread among the Efik, Igbo and Ibibio people. Some found on monoliths in Ikom, Nigeria dates to 2000 B.C.
The scripts are pictographs that share some similarities with ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics and were divided into a sacred version, used by initiates of the Ekpe cult, and a public version for general use. Versions of the nsibidi script were taken to places like Cuba and Haiti by slaves shipped through the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and still survive. Some of the public versions of Nsibidi were reflected in the uli body decor that was widespread among the Igbo people.
Ife and Benin bronzes
Ife bronze heads numbering 19 were discovered in 1938 through accidental excavation in the Wunmonije compound. They’re often discussed in connection with Benin bronzes due to the similarity of the lead and zinc alloys (brass) that were used to make them, as different from pure bronze, which has copper alloys. Their connection is not surprising given the historical relationship between the Benin and Yoruba monarchies. They also both date from the 13th and 14th centuries, with Benin works extending to the late 19th century when the British attacked Benin and looted thousands of the works that decorated the king’s palace.
Impact of the Discoveries
The combined effect of the emergence of Nok, Igbo Ukwu and Ife-Benin works is that they brought the depth of skills and sophistication of the cultures that produced them to the European world that had for long denigrated African culture.
The metal-working skills exhibited in the works show a deep understanding of metallurgy that was indigenous.
Linked by One Thread In all most of the ethnic groups in Nigeria belong to the Niger-Congo language family that indicate a common origin. The British historian Basil Davidson argues in one of his books, Black Mother (Africa and the Atlantic Slave Trade) that it is likely that the people who went on to populate parts of central and southern Africa had emerged from the Nigerian end of West Africa.