Nok Steel: A Map of the Month Timeline

Discussion in 'Alternate History Discussion: Before 1900' started by Jonathan Edelstein, Jun 30, 2014.

  1. Jonathan Edelstein Rooted Cosmopolitan

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    Three thousand years ago, a culture flourished on the Jos Plateau in what is now Nigeria. It produced the oldest works of West African sculpture of which we are aware, and flourished for centuries – possibly as long as a millennium. But it left behind nothing but mysterious statues and a few tantalizing potsherds and tools.

    In this timeline, it will leave much more.

    You may have figured, from the title of the thread, that I’m referring to what we know as the Nok culture, although that certainly wasn’t their name for themselves. I am… and I’m not. The culture that will arise in this timeline will have many similarities to the Nok, including their artistic and (almost certainly) religious sensibility. But it will arise earlier, and just as importantly, it will make the transition from the Neolithic to the Iron Age considerably sooner.

    How? With a nearly clean slate to work on, there are ways. If I were an archaeologist, the extreme gaps in our knowledge of the Nok would be my despair – but as a storyteller, the same gaps are an invitation to artistic license.

    I do intend to follow three guidelines in using that license. First, I will assume that the earliest estimated date for any historic development is the correct one: the Termit Massif bloomeries were founded in the 16th century BC rather than the 11th or the beginning of the first millennium, and the proto-Nok existed on the Jos Plateau before 1000 BC. Second, I will assume that cultural traits didn’t appear out of nowhere, and that whatever compelled the Nok to craft their unique terra-cotta statues during the first millennium has its roots in a far earlier time. And third, I will assume that trade, warfare and other forms of contact between the peoples of the Niger Valley and the adjacent Sahelian regions are a constant throughout the timeline. I consider these assumptions reasonable with the exception of the first, and even as to that, I doubt I’ll be proven wrong anytime soon. The combination of the three, properly applied, can get us to the Iron Age.

    A note on place-names: For the most part, I’ll use contemporary names for cities and towns but modern ones for geographic features, both to avoid confusion and so that I won’t have to make up as many damn names. I’ll also use the BC/AD dating system, even though the events of this story will probably prevent Christianity from ever arising. Given that the subject matter of the story may be unfamiliar to many readers, I’d prefer not to add the extra layer of confusion that would come from a made-up calendar or geographic terms. You may, if you prefer, imagine that the story is being narrated by a traveler from the world we know.

    And with that, I welcome you to…

    [​IMG]
     
  2. Jonathan Edelstein Rooted Cosmopolitan

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    [​IMG]

    Sometime before 2000 BC, the ancestors of the people we know as the Nok migrated to the Jos Plateau. [1] Archaeological evidence and legend agree that they came from the west, from the banks of the Niger, but their exact place of origin and their reason for leaving it is a mystery. The stories of the exodus were only recorded nine centuries later, and no two of them are the same: some speak of war and exile, and others of a hero-king or god named Adiomu who prophesied that the plateau would be a land of plenty. Whether Adiomu ever existed, and whether he was a visionary prophet or failed war-leader, will never be known.

    Once settled, the Nok intermarried with the sparse population that had lived on the plateau before and established the same living patterns they had known in their homeland. But scratching out a living from plateau soil with a Neolithic tool kit was much harder than it had been in the fertile Niger Valley. The early Nok learned the meaning of scarcity, and inevitably, some sought to remedy that problem by taking what their neighbors had.

    The earliest settlements on the plateau, dated to 1900 BC or earlier, were open, with no defensive works. By 1850, however, there is evidence of hill-forts protected by stone walls, ditches and thorn-fences. There is also a substantially higher incidence of weapons meant for war rather than hunting. The settlements grew larger as people sheltered together for protection, reaching 800 to 1000 people in size. And this is the time Nok legend knows as the “Age of Kings.”

    The Nok had no kings when they first settled the plateau: on that the stories all agree, though it conflicts with the legend of Adiomu. With the advent of endemic warfare, however, war-leaders became necessary, and they soon took on royal power. The sign of the early Nok kings was the stone and terra-cotta arm-rings with which they were buried, and indeed, the word for “king” is derived from “ring-wearer.”

    The kings did not rule unchallenged. They were selected by a council of elders or nobles called the “kingmakers,” who at times claimed the power to remove them. The assembly of fighting men and the secret society that conducted the village’s religious rites also held influence, and many stories tell of kings having to persuade these assemblies to go to war or enact a new law. Whether this was actually the case, or whether the stories represent the yearnings of a more autocratic time for an idealized age of freedom, is uncertain, but the unanimity of the legends and the survival of vestigial forms of election into historic times suggests that the early kings were far from absolute. [2]

    About 1700 BC, another innovation begins appearing in the strata: the first evidence of metallurgy, in the form of copper beads and beaten copper plates. Given the rarity of these artifacts, it is unlikely that the Nok of this period knew of smelting; instead, they appear to have found or traded for nuggets of copper and laboriously worked it with stone tools. They knew nothing of bronze, and copper was too soft to be useful for tools or weapons; it appears to have been a prestige item, used to make jewelry for the king or others who ranked high in the community.

    The number and quality of copper artifacts at Nok sites increases steadily through the 17th and 16th centuries, as does the number of items imported from the Niger Delta or the Lake Chad region, evidence of growing trade networks. By this time, the Nok were accomplished copper jewelers and had already begun to show the genius for statuary that would mark their later civilization, and their work was prized throughout the Niger basin. But the true revolution in metallurgy would come from further north: the discovery of ironworking at the Termit massif, sometime between 1550 and 1500.

    It is nearly impossible to imagine the impact that the Termit bloomeries had on a culture that had hitherto progressed little beyond the Neolithic. [3] Perhaps the best evidence of its effect on the neighboring peoples is the way it passed into legend. The later Nok would tell of a tribe of gods or demons – like the contemporary Egyptians, they blurred the distinction between the two – who were expelled from the stars and fell to earth in the shape of meteorites. They took the form of molten iron and became shape-changers, able to make themselves into any living thing, weapon or tool. Through these powers, they ruled the desert for a thousand years until one of their human slaves, a hero named Tadanja, learned how to control their form and shaped them into tools for the use of mankind. Tadanja’s tribe became a mighty race of sorcerers and warriors, befitting a people who overthrew the gods themselves. Whatever events this tale may actually have recorded, filtered through the lens of centuries, the Nok would never stop thinking of ironworking as a form of sorcery.

    By 1475 BC, the magic of Termit had infiltrated the Jos Plateau. The ironworkers sometimes came raiding, and on the occasions when the proto-Nok managed to overcome them, they took iron spearheads and swords for themselves. At other times they traded peacefully, and the route between Termit and the Nok homeland started to become what later generations would call the Steel Road. Iron tools appear with increasing frequency in the strata from this period, and there are even examples of iron jewelry, further proof of how valuable this metal was to the West Africans of this time.

    It would be a further two generations, however, before the Nok themselves began working iron. This, too, is an event that passed into myth: the story is told of the trickster Adeye, who arranged to be captured and enslaved by the sorcerers of Termit so he could bring their secrets back to his people. Legend has it that Zamad, the magician-king of Termit, made Adeye do ten impossible labors and planned to kill him notwithstanding their successful completion, only for Adeye to turn the tables on him through trickery and wring his magic from him at sword-point.

    The story of Adeye may not be entirely mythical. The people of Termit, like the Nok themselves, kept slaves, and no doubt captured many Nok prisoners in their raids. They were also known to practice adoption of slaves, and blacksmiths with no heirs of their own may have trained slaves to take their place. Whether one of these won free to the Jos Plateau and taught the proto-Nok the secret of ironworking, or whether the skill came to them through more conventional methods, will forever be uncertain. What is known is that sometime around 1400, native ironworking begins to appear at Nok sites, marking the transition from the Proto-Nok to the Early Nok and setting the stage for the first true state.

    _______

    [1] You can, if you wish, consider this the POD – or maybe not. No one is certain where the Nok actually came from, and there’s no way to be sure that they didn’t migrate from the Niger Valley.

    [2] Elective kingship is nearly universal in OTL Nigeria and common elsewhere in West Africa, and secret religious societies are also widespread in the region. There’s no evidence of it this early – there’s no evidence of any form of government this early – but as I said in the introductory post, I’m assuming that everything comes from somewhere.

    [3] In OTL, too, West Africa went directly from the Neolithic to the Iron Age without experiencing a Bronze Age in between; the limited use of copper I've posited for TTL's Nok is consistent with evidence from Niger during the second millennium BC.
     
    Last edited: Jul 1, 2014
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  3. Ridwan Asher Jungle Arab

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    Yes yes yes yes yes yesyesyesyesyesyesyesyesssss!!!!
     
  4. Hnau free radical

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    This looks really cool Jonathan! Intriguing premise. :)
     
  5. Soverihn Kanye 2020

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    Fuck yes. Its great to see this up.
     
  6. Krall The Formless Glutton

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    So, you're making a timeline for the Map of the Month contest (links in my sig, for anyone interested ;) ), and it's about the earlier technological development of West Africa!?

    [​IMG]
     
    Last edited: Jun 30, 2014
  7. Haaki Self-proclaimed idiot

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    There's not much I can add to this, but I'll be sure to follow this timeline.
     
  8. Moonstruck Exasperated Cultist

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    Given the human limits to eloquence, and my many failings as a writer, I can do naught but echo what wiser people than me have said:

    Yes!

    (Trying to be slightly more constructive, I absolutely love neolithic timelines, and while I would normally recoil at the thought of having to try to actually fill all the gaps in our knowledge, you have proven yourself more than capable thereof before, and I have no doubt you'll do it again. I am practically shivering with antici-
     
  9. Ridwan Asher Jungle Arab

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    I really can't say much because my knowledge about Africa, let alone in this kind of era, is pathetic, and can only expect to be educated by this TL. The only things I'm wishful about are that we can see this Nok Civilization facing against European colonialism (despite what Jonathan has already mentioned about possible butterflies) or seeing how it will form a unified Sahel Empire parallel and interacting with contemporary Roman Empire.
     
    Last edited: Jun 30, 2014
  10. Jonathan Edelstein Rooted Cosmopolitan

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    Thanks for the support, everyone. The rise and fall of the Nok will play out in five more installments, all of which have been written (that 24-hour flight to Oz was good for something) but which may change in response to reader comments. I'll post them at intervals of three or four days.

    Unfortunately, the Nok aren't likely to last until classical times - one thing to keep in mind is that they're the region's first-draft empire, much like Assyria, and will have the problems that implies. Before all is said and done, though, they'll influence the world far beyond the Niger, and they'll leave an enduring legacy.
     
  11. SpazzReflex my kidneys are somewhere?

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    This sounds fun, and in this frame of time butterflies will make interesting ripples into Egypt and the rest of the Sahel

    I can't wait to see more. :)
     
  12. NikoZnate γνῶθι σεαυτόν

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    Definitely looking forward to this (and wondering how much of it will be congruent with the plans I have for the Nok in my TL :p )

    *Braces for Awesomeness*
     
  13. Moonstruck Exasperated Cultist

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    -pation)

    Oh, well. I suppose they can't all be Malê Rising length :p

    Really, though, the thing about the Nok only lasting a limited time makes a lot of sense, and its quite nice to have timelines where states cease to exist as well. It's also interesting to see a timeline which has already been written in its entirety, and which is relatively concise in scope, as opposed to a certain Opus Magnum of yours.
     
  14. Dirk Banned

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    Is that a Rocky Horror reference/easter egg? Because if so, :D:D:D
     
  15. Ganesha શિવા બાળક

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    A fascinating and great beginning, Jonathan! I'd happily read anything you write, but this seems particularly interesting. When did ironworking begin IOTL in West Africa, to provide some context?

    Subscribed.

    Cheers,
    Ganesha
     
  16. danmac Well-Known Member

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    This is a cool TL. I wish I knew more about Ancient West Africa (or West Africa during any period of history for that matter:eek:). Still I will definitely follow this and eagerly await your Map of the Month submission. I'm curious though as to when the Trans-Saharan trade developed. I feel that once it does an earlier developed Iron smelting will have a major impact on the rest of the world.
     
  17. Jonathan Edelstein Rooted Cosmopolitan

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    Thanks again for the support, everyone.

    We'll see some of what happens in the Niger basin and the proto-Bantu lands, and eventually the Nile. The Niger to Egypt is a long and difficult route, though, so there won't be anything like Nok-Egyptian wars: the influence will be more subtle.

    Well, this is for the Map of the Month contest (Kaiphranos will be doing the map), so it has to be fairly short and focused. Besides, I doubt I'll do anything else as ambitious as Malê Rising anytime soon.

    It does happen to nearly all of them. The main continuity between the Nok and the post-Nok will be cultural; like India and China, there will be common cultural threads running through the successor West African cultures, but empires and political models will rise and fall.

    The timeline will end in 600 BC, BTW, although there'll be some hints as to what happens later.

    There's fairly solid evidence of early ironworking in what is now eastern Niger, but the date is uncertain - some sources put it as early as 1500 BC, while others say the eleventh century or the early first millennium. As stated in the original post, I'm using the earliest date and possibly even pushing it back a bit.

    The Bantu also picked up ironworking early, possibly before or at the start of the migrations; they were certainly an Iron Age culture by the time they got to East Africa.

    At this point, the West Africans don't have domestic camels or even donkeys, so the trans-Saharan trade will take time to develop: in fact, it won't factor into this timeline except for a partial trade route to the salt-mining regions. The eventual trade between the Niger Valley and Egypt will follow a southern route, which will be detailed a couple of updates from now and which will have a significant effect on the upper Nilotic peoples.

    In any event, the Egyptians will already be smelting and working iron by the time this trade gets started, although the Nok will still have a few tricks to teach them.
     
  18. othyrsyde Sana ka'aha yo pendejos!

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    This looks full of awesome sauce so far!:D
     
  19. Al-numbers Well-Known Member

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    Dunno much about West Africa, but I'm definitely watching this TL closely. ;)
     
  20. St. Just Angel of Death

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    As with all of your work in the history forums, I am very interested and eager to read more :D