Plant strong west Africans

Chemical traces on west African pots of the Nok people reveal plant-based diet.


The Nok culture appeared in today’s Nigeria at around 1500 BC and persisted until around AD 500. Still poorly understood, the Nok People are famous for their distinctive art, also for their ironworking, some of the earliest in Africa. Now, botanical science has thrown new light on Nok dietary practices, revealing that the people consumed a predominantly vegetarian diet.


The researchers analysed organic residues using lipid analysis on 458 Nok vessels from ten Nok sites (spanning from 1500 BC to 1 BC) and discovered a remarkable array of plant foods. The team ground up small fragments of potsherds, and chemically extracted the lipids preserved in the clay, obtaining biomolecular fingerprints of the foods the vessels once held. The soils in Nok country are acidic, which means that organic materials such as animal bones or plant seeds are rare finds. Yet, over a third of the potsherds contained a wide range of plant lipids.


We now know that the Nok consumed leaves from plants such as jute mallow, African eggplant, okra, cowpea, and others still widely eaten today. These foods have the advantage of being easily stored, also serving as backup foods during famines, while adding flavour to the monotonous starch-based diet. They include the baobab, whose leaves are cooked in soups, as are other leaves, often used in areas where yam consumption is commonplace.


The new study adds a vital dimension to previous knowledge, which had previously to focus on starchy food and meat. We now know that the Nok people consumed a varied diet that combined vegetables, pulses, tubers, using herbs and spices to enhance their meals.


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Image: A Nok terracotta sculpture. Held in the Louvre.

Credit: Marie-Lan Nguyen