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Early sculptural traditions in West Africa: new evidence from the Chad Basin of north-eastern Nigeria.


In contrast to the European Upper Palaeolithic, the beginnings of figurative art in Africa appear relatively late. Outside Egypt and the art mobilier of the Sahara (Willett & Roubet 1998), most of the evidence for early sculptural traditions originates from West Africa, and best known, but far from being culturally well contextualised, is the so-called Nok Culture in Central Nigeria (Fagg 1990; Jemkur 1992). Dating approximately between 500 BC and AD 200 (1) the Nok terracotta figurines represent so far the earliest sculptural art in West Africa and beyond. Other West African art traditions are dated to the last two millennia (summarised in Garlake 2002: 97-139; Willett 2002: 63-75; Willett & Roubet 1998: 336-41). Thus, it might appear as if most African sculptural figurines existed during the Iron Age or subsequent periods and consequently were invented by African metallurgist societies.

However, there is evidence that these developments have roots going back into pre-metal periods. Cattle figurines are found across the African Sahara and Sahel from the second millennium BC. They appear from Mauritania (Vernet & Ould Mohamed Naffe 2003: 63) to the Agadez region in Niger (Gouletquer & Grebenart 1979) as well as in north-east Africa. Zoomorphic and anthropomorphic depictions come from Jebel Moya in Sudan, most likely dating to the first millennium BC (Gerharz 1994: 105). The Asmara area in Eritrea also features cattle depictions, although highly stylised and made from stone rather than clay, dating to the middle of the first millennium BC (Schmidt & Curtis 2001: 855).


In the southern part of the Chad Basin in the West African Sahel, in particular in the flat clay plains that characterise the landscape of northern Cameroon, and the adjacent areas of Chad to the east (Figure 1), a distinct sculptural tradition has been known for decades (Lebeuf & Masson-Detourbet 1950; Jansen & Gauthier 1973; Lebeuf 1951; 1962; Lebeuf & Lebeuf 1977). It has been named the art of the Sao, who according to the oral traditions of the local Kotoko people were the mythical former inhabitants of this region and their ancestors. Their art mainly consists of anthropomorphic and zoomorphic figurines made of burnt clay. With a few exceptions that show expressiveness and beauty, they are shaped in rather simple outlines and represent an art that is less developed in comparison to other West African traditions (Garlake 2002: 105). The figurines derive from tombs (especially children's tombs), surface finds from settlement mounds or from their excavations and the ramparts of settlements. Although Lebeuf's chronology of the Sao suffers from mixing archaeological data with mythical traditions, the associated finds and the ethno-historical background leave no doubt that the majority of the figurines date to later periods of the Iron Age or sub-recent times. However, at an excavation in Sou Blama Radjil in north Cameroon, Rapp has found small, crudely made zoomorphic and maybe anthropomorphic figurines in a pre-Sao context, the oldest of which date to about the middle of the first millennium BC (Rapp 1984:271 ff). More such figurines, mostly humanoid or bovid in form, were excavated at Manaouctchi-Grea, a site in the northern Mandara mountains in Cameroon, by S. MacEachern. Manaouctchi-Grea is identified as a centre for the Sao and its earliest levels date to c. 200 BC (MacEachern 1996: 493).

Figurines have also been recorded from the clay plains of north-eastern Nigeria, locally called firki in Kanuri language or the Chad Lagoonal Complex by geoscientists (Tuley 1972), where Holocene human occupation began around 1000 BC (Brunk & Gronenborn 2004: 108). Before that, in early and mid-Holocene times, the area was not accessible because of Lake Chad's high-water levels. The area is still prone to seasonal flooding today, and, as has been the case since the occupational beginnings, permanent settlements are restricted to small, elevated sandy spots. These environmental restrictions have resulted in the formation of large settlement mounds. Clay figurines have been found in a number of well-dated examples of these settlement mounds, excavated in the 1960s (Connah 1981) and in the 1990s (Gronenborn 1998). The largest excavation, with stratification about 10m deep, was carried out at Daima (Connah 1981: 99-196), where clay figurines occurred from the first levels of occupation (Daima I, Late Stone Age, from around 500 BC to AD 50) through the early Iron Age deposits (Daima II, c. AD 50 to AD 700) to the last phase (Daima III, AD 700 until the early second millennium AD or probably up to the thirteenth century AD). These results pushed the Chad Basin tradition of clay figurines back into the period just before the advent of iron metallurgy and roughly contemporaneous to the beginnings of Nok art. Among the representations there is a change from cattle, almost exclusively depicted in the Late Stone Age

and Early Iron Age levels, to an increased type variety in the subsequent phases that includes sheep, goat and wild animals, as well as stylised anthropomorphic figurines. Excavations at neighbouring mounds (Kursakata and Mege) with stratification covering the same period as Daima, as well as earlier and later periods, also revealed clay figurines (Gronenborn 1998). However, the patterns of change that were identified in Daima were not repeated. While, for instance, anthropomorphic figurines are absent in Daima I, they occur at the same time or even earlier in Mege. Cattle depictions, typical for Daima I and early Daima II, are completely absent at Kursakata and Mege. However, since the number of clay figurines found is very small, it may not give a representative picture.

This paper concerns clay figurines from the adjacent territories in north-eastern Nigeria, where a new corpus has been assembled from more than 15 years of archaeological research. Here we present a brief account of the objects recovered from two areas within the Bama Deltaic Complex: the area of the Gajiganna culture and the Walasa area south of it (Figure 1). Coming from well-dated and stratified excavations, these figurines offer a sequence of sculptural forms from the first traces of human occupation at c. 1800 BC into the Iron Age (Figure 2). In each case the forms of the clay images are described and we conclude with some reflections on their meaning for the communities that made them.

Art of the Gajiganna culture area

West of the firki, in an area called the Bama Deltaic Complex in geomorphological terms (Tuley 1972), the clay plains intermingle more and more with sandy regions. In comparison to the firki plains, human occupation started approximately one millennium earlier (early second millennium BC) as a result of slightly more elevated lands and less severe inundation. The respective archaeological complex has been studied since the 1990s and is called Gajiganna after the first site discovered (Breunig 2004; 2005; Hambolu 2004). Three phases of development are differentiated. Gajiganna Phase I (c. 1800-1500 BC) comprises mobile pastoralists of Saharan origin who left behind small, up to 1ha large, flat campsites with few accumulated cultural remains. Phase II (c. 1500-800 BC) is characterised by sedentary farming communities, represented in the archaeological record by settlement mounds of up to 4ha in size. From about 1000 BC onwards the end of sedentism and settlement mound formation and a return to mobility are indicated by small and flat sites. Evidence for an abrupt cultural change around 500 BC (Phase III) takes the form of the emergence of settlements several times larger than those in any period before. Clay figurines were found at sites of all phases of the Gajiganna culture. Some were excavated, others were found on the surface in clear association with other cultural materials assignable to distinct phases of the Gajiganna sequence.


In Phase I figurines, like other cultural remains, are rare due to the high mobility of the pastoral groups. The figurines are small and show very simple and stylised, asexual anthropomorphic representations (Figure 3: 1, 4), as well as other zoomorphic ones (Figure 3: 2, 3) that most likely resemble bovids. The pastoral groups of Phase I of the Gajiganna culture came from the central southern Sahara, presumably expelled by increasing drought around 2000 BC (Breunig 2005: 111-3). For this reason, it is not surprising that more or less similar simple figurines of the same age are known from there. For instance, Saharan counterparts of the Gajiganna phase I figurines were found in the Agadez region (Gouletquer & Grebenart 1979). Bovine day figurines also are known from other Saharan and Sahelian environments, where the Tichitt area of Mauritania in particular provided numerous fragments from a comparable 'Neolithic' context (Vernet 1993: 297).

Phase II figurines are quite similar to those of the preceding phase, thus belonging to the same tradition. Fragments of anthropomorphic figurines are rare in comparison to zoomorphic types. While the two human figurines of Phase I are faceless, those of Phase II show anatomical details like eyes, nose, mouth and ears (Figure 4: 1-3), and even indicate hairstyles or headgear (Figure 4: 2, 3). Most numerous are fragments of bovid figurines, in particular the numerous conical fragments of horns (Figure 4: 4-7).



The last phase of the Gajiganna culture in the Bama Deltaic Complex (Phase III) is characterised by cultural, social and economical changes that must have affected many aspects of people's life around the middle of the first millennium BC. The most conspicuous features are the appearance of large settlements with sizes of 10ha and more, substantial construction activities like ditches surrounding the settlements, economic surpluses as concluded from an enormous increase in storage facilities, and the population growth behind such developments (Breunig et al. 2006; Magnavita 2004; Magnavita et al. 2004; 2006). While many cultural aspects thus changed considerably, the clay figurines more or less remain the same as shown here by a few examples from the site of Zilum (Figure 5: 1-3). They have the same size of a few centimetres, depict the same animals, i.e. mainly bovids, and follow the same concept of schematised stylisation with a round body and stumpy legs, a head with extensions indicating horns, and, in some cases, a carefully attached tail. Finds from the early Iron Age site of Dorota (Figure 5: 6-7) or even from a sub-recent site called Dongo A (Figure 5: 5) show that this kind of representation continues in the region of the Bama Deltaic Complex without major changes into later periods.

There is only one anthropomorphic figurine from the Phase III site of Zilum that differs from the rest (Figure 5: 4) in its size and schematisation. Such change, like the increase in size and in artistic expression, is more typical for the contemporaneous development in the Walasa region.


Art of the Walasa area (mid and late first millennium BC)

Around 500 BC, contemporary with the Gajiganna Phase III sites in the Bama Deltaic Complex, large settlements also emerged approximately 130km further south-east in the Walasa area (Figure 1). The sites have been classified as the Magaba phase of the local sequence, studied at the key site of Maibe in 2004. The subsequent phase is named Malankari after a site investigated in 2005. Magaba and Malankari sites differ from those of the Gajiganna Phase III in that they lack both ditches and the large numbers of storage pits. A difference also exists in the sculptural art, which developed rather differently from its western counterpart. Two aspects of change are its quantity and size, well expressed in the weight of the figurines. Thus, the figurines recorded at Maibe weigh roughly the same as all such finds from the Gajiganna sites together, whereas the Malankari figurines weigh four times more than those from Maibe. Apparently, figurines became more important or popular at the end of the first millennium BC. In addition, a new concept of art emerged in respect to the artistic expression of the figurines from the Magaba and Malankari phases. For the first time, the figurines are large and carefully shaped and no longer small, roughly formed clay objects that are hard to identify. Interestingly, some 100km south of the Chad Basin, another concept of art, as expressed in the famous Nok terracottas, emerged around the same time. In the Walasa area, this change is dated to a period characterised by the stone to metal transition or the turn from Stone Age to Iron Age in traditional terms. Neither iron slag nor any piece of iron was found at sites of the Magaba phase, which is dated to the middle of the first millennium BC. At Malankari, dated to the fourth-third century BC, a piece of iron excavated from a test trench indicates that iron was in use at this time in this area.


The figurines at Maibe come from of a spread of surface finds, predominantly potsherds and some stone artefacts, covering an area about 1km in length on sandy ground along a clay depression. Fragments of clay figurines were found among surface finds that appear homogenous with the cultural material excavated. Thus, the same cultural context can be presumed. Radiocarbon-dated charcoals from the top and bottom of the 2m-thick deposits excavated at the site's centre are almost identical, indicating a brief settlement phase of which the figurines were a part. Among the anthropomorphic figurines, a comparatively large male sculpture expresses the stylistic difference to sculptures from the earlier Gajiganna phases (Figure 6: 2). The figurine consists of the upper part of the body, from neck to thighs. The head, the arms and the legs are broken off. It seems to depict a man, because breasts are absent. The navel is protruding, and around the waist a ribbon or a belt is visible. Also visible is the upper part of a loincloth, which is broken above the legs. On the back of the figurine a small, elongated attachment might belong to a hairstyle. Other anthropomorphic objects are completely different in size and style (Figure 6: 1). Zoomorphic figurines from Maibe comprise representations similar to those of the Gajiganna area. These are stylised, mostly rough-shaped animals that might depict cattle (Figure 7: 6), a bird (Figure 7: 5) and what is probably a canid (Figure 7: 1). However, there are also new forms, like a small animal head with a broad open mouth, ears, nose with nostrils and eyes shaped by circular rings with a central dot (Figure 7: 2). Another novelty are animals with long necks and attached round eyes as well as something like a horn or a nose between the eyes (Figure 7: 3-4). Finally, there is a large quadruped with a broken head and tail and legs broken above the knees (Figure 7: 7). The body is hollow and appears a bit too compact for cattle. It more likely represents the solid mass of an elephant.


The figurines from Malankari date to the late first millennium BC and seem to focus more on animals and less on human depictions. With a size of more than 30-35ha Malankari is among the largest known prehistoric sites in the Nigerian Chad Basin. Magnetic prospecting carried out in 2005 has revealed a complex subterranean structure of a honeycomb type not yet excavated. The settlement forms a very low elevation the fringes of which are eroded to expose cultural materials, mainly potsherds and stone artefacts. Clay figurines and fragments thereof were found on the surface as well as in the excavated sections. Many pieces too fragmented for identification nevertheless indicate that figurines can be found all over the site. There are a few, simply shaped figurines that show similarities to figures from Maibe, such as an object (Figure 8: 3) with a pecker-like mouth (compare Figure 7:5 classified as a bird from Maibe) or small anthropomorphic figurines with stylised columnar bodies and faces (Figure 8: 2, compare Figure 6:1 from Maibe). Otherwise, the figurines are zoomorphic and big African mammals dominate. Most common are hippopotamus and elephant, followed by giraffe. Others cannot be identified dearly on a species-level. The size of the Malankari animal figurines of 15cm and more exceeds the size of those in the periods before. Another remarkable difference to the figurines of the Gajiganna area (Bama Deltaic Complex), and probably also to the locally preceding Maibe phase is the almost complete absence of cattle depictions at Malankari. While cattle figurines were most frequent in other assemblages, in particular in the Bama Deltaic Complex throughout all phases of human occupation, only one pointed and curved clay object depicting a horn (Figure 8: 1) can be attributed to cattle.


Hippopotamus figurines (Figures 9 and 10) are characterised by their compact bodies with proportions that can either be naturalistic (Figure 10: 1) or a bit deformed (Figure 9: 2). Also remarkable are the anatomical details of the head. There is a flat and broad mouth, made by a horizontal cut, in some cases crossed by a set of incisions probably indicating teeth (Figure 9: 3). The eyes and the ears are made by attached clots of clay. Both the distance between the nostrils and their position on the head vary. In some cases the nostrils are right above the mouth; in others they are located on the upper head. One fragment (Figure 9: 1) is a good example of the quality of some of the figurines and may point to an artistic accomplishment at Malankari that has no parallels in earlier periods.

Beside hippopotamus, elephant figurines form another important group of animals not represented before. They are characterised by the trunk, the tusks and the large ears. The most complete elephant figurine was found at a neighbouring site (98/91), contemporaneous according to the cultural materials found (Figure 11: 3). Like the other elephant figurines (Figure 11: 1-2), the fragile parts (ears, trunk and tusks) are broken off, but still easy to identify because of the position of the fracture. The central line of the back is marked by notches. Notches or deep cut incisions also occur along the sides, possibly indicating the wrinkled skin. The eyes are formed like those of the hippopotamus figurines. A few fragments of figurines resemble giraffes (Figure 12: 1). The most diagnostic features are the two short horns situated between the ears and the typical tall mouth. The eyes are made either by round clots of clay or by incised dots, which are also used to form the nostrils.


The last group of figurines from Malankari (Figure 13) consists of depictions that cannot be classified zoologically. One example is the front part of an animal body, covered with several short and deep incisions, probably indicating a hairy skin as well as notches along the back (Figure 13: 3) similar to those of the elephant in Figure 11. The eyes are made in the typical style of the Malankari figurines by clots of clay that are impressed in the centre. Below, part of the mouth is recognisable. At both sides of the head there are prominent parts that probably formed the base of big horns. The lower part of the neck is shaped into a dewlap. Because of the dewlap and the big horns, this figurine might depict either an African buffalo or a large antelope (e.g. eland). Another example of this group is a small head placed on a strong, round neck but without any natural attributes (Figure 13: 2). The animal has two ears or horns, both broken, massive eyebrows, small eyes made of clots of clay, and a mouth opened wide.



The clay figurines described here are among the earliest in West Africa. They are present without interruption in the archaeological record of the second and first millennia BC, and appear first in pastoral, then in sedentary agro-pastoral, and lastly in proto-urban contexts that characterise the end of the recorded sequence. In contrast to these considerable socioeconomic changes over time, the clay figurines remain more or less the same, both in type and in topic. Only in assemblages dating to the late first millennium BC in the Walasa area (Malankari phase), the figurines seem to develop into a new, formal kind of figurative art.

From a stylistic point of view, the figurines of our study area can hardly be seen as a progenitor of the well-known 'Sao' art, mentioned above. Most of these figurines would not be considered artistic in our Western understanding of art. They appear rather casually made, in a few minutes without much attention for naturalistic details. Apart from the highlights of the Malankari phase, one could presume that a naturalistic depiction of man or animal was not important. If this were true, we could stop identifying the animal type and learn more about their function instead. But as it stands, we do not know whether the often simple form is intended or reflects a lack of skill.

Even the archaeological investigations that provide the best basis for conclusions about the function did not reveal much. The figurines were lying among the other cultural material of the settlement areas without any noticeable context. It seems as if they formed part of the daily life, either for ritual purpose, as part of a symbolic system, or simply as children's toys. Small animal figurines are still in use as toys today in the Chad Basin region (Jansen & Gauthier 1973: 20-1; Magnavita 2006: 74-5). However, finds such as at Jebel Moya (Gerharz 1994: 105), where they are found not only in the settlement areas but also to a limited extend in burials, may be proof of a ritual use.

Even if their meaning remains unknown, we notice a change in the quality and quantity of the figurines in the Walasa area during the late first millennium BC. Their number increased, but traditionally prominent topics like humans and cattle disappeared almost completely. Comparing this to the art of the Nok culture in central Nigeria, where at the same time sophisticated, stylised and well-made clay sculptures appeared probably connected with early iron production, one may speculate that the change in the Walasa area also stands in relation to the first appearance of iron objects and thus with new influences or a change in symbolic systems. Another possible explanation with regard to the cattle figurines could be that art reflects economic reality and changes when this reality changes. In the Asmara area of Eritrea, the stylised bulls' heads are connected with the earliest agro-pastoralist communities (Schmidt & Curtis 2001: 849); at Jebel Moya separate burials of cattle dating from the third to the first millennium BC seem to enforce the importance of cattle (Gerharz 1994:108). In our research area, the population growth as evidenced in the archaeological record by large settlements and storage facilities in the middle and late first millennium BC probably coincided with a decreasing importance of cattle keeping in the diet of such large communities. A shift towards intensified plant cultivation for food is indicated by archaeozoological and archaeobotanical analyses (Breunig et al. 2006: 261). Simplistically, we could suggest that as the pastoral world was vanishing from people's everyday life, the art changed. However, this idea does not offer an explanation of why cattle figurines were then replaced by large wild mammals like elephant or hippopotamus since hunting surely did not play an important role in feeding proto-urban communities. Therefore, the figurines presented here remain an enigma like many other objects of Africa's prehistoric art.





We gratefully acknowledge the fact that the figurines described here derive from research financed by the German Research Foundation since 1988. Thanks to Detlef Gronenborn, Carlos Magnavita and Nicole Rupp for information on the context of the figurines, excavated and recorded by them, and to Monika Heckner and Barbara Voss for the drawings.

Received: 14 May 2007; Accepted: 13 September 2007; Revised: 21 November 2007


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(1) All dates are given in calibrated calendar years. The [sup.14]C dates from our own research are calibrated with CalPal (Cologne Radiocarbon & Paleoclimate Research Package), a programme provided by the University of Cologne, Germany (

Peter Breunig, Gabriele Franke & Michael Niisse *

* J.W. Goethe-Universitat Frankfurt am Main, Institut Archaologische Wissenschaften, Archaologie und Archaobotanik Afrikas, Gruneburgplatz 1, 60323 Frankfurt am Main, Germany
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Author:Breunig, Peter; Franke, Gabriele; Nusse, Michael
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Date:Jun 1, 2008
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