Ancient African Woodcarving

Woodcarving was the most common form of ancient African art and continues to exist in current cultures today.

Almost every known civilization possessed some form of art that was used by its members to express themselves and tell stories.

While many painted or drew, the ancient Africans focused instead on woodcarving, or the process of creating images, statues, and sculptures out of wood.

Woodcarving was a valuable skill that almost anyone could practice so long as they had a knife and block of wood to mold and shape.

Unfortunately, although almost all of the ancient African tribes carved, few pieces remain. This is because wood is a soft, organic material that was worn down over thousands of years.

Carved wooden cranes

It molded, broke, or burned. For this reason, historians know little about what ancient art looked like.

However, there are some surviving pieces. The oral tradition of many tribes also kept practices intact, so people today can replicate the art of their ancestors.

Some common types of woodcarving were:

  • Sculptures
  • Statues
  • Masks
  • Scenes
  • Talismans
  • Jewelry


Professionals know African woodcarving has been around for over 5,000 years and think it is much, much older.

The oldest specimens currently found date back to the 17th century BCE, or almost 4,000 years ago.

These statues were made by a tribe called the Kush, which would eventually become the Kingdom of Kush.

Historians believe the practice of woodcarving began as a way for the ancient Africans to express the spiritual and natural world around them.

A selection of woodcarving hand tools

Special pieces like masks could also be used to make connections with those worlds. Some statues, including the famous Nok sculptures, were thought to be offerings to spirits or gods in exchange for good fortune.

Nok statues are an old form of wood carving that appeared between the 1st century BCE and the 1st century CE.

These statues had exaggerated features like flat noses, wide-lipped mouths, huge eyes with holes in the center, and then holes all around the body.

The head was huge and the body was small. Some were made of wood, but others would be made of clay.

No one knows for sure if a specific ancient African culture started woodcarving first. Most believe that multiple tribes started the practice around the same time and that traditions then spread through trade and regular interactions.


One major feature of ancient African woodcarving was its use of three dimensions. While most carvings naturally use three dimensions, the ancient Africans almost never made two-dimensional art.

While many civilizations made paintings, drawings, and etchings, these were rare among most African tribes. Instead, woodcarving became the primary form of expression.

When the ancient Africans made carvings, one of their favorite subjects was humans. Instead of carving realistic versions or ones with the right proportions, the artists often exaggerated features. So someone might make a human but give them a large head, square chin, and small legs.

Wood carving with a chainsaw

Likewise, the ancient Africans would carve animals and make them look exaggerated as well. They might have large teeth, small bodies, and big heads.

People were more common than animals, but both were important. Some carvings told stories, others were decoration, and still more might have been used in religious ceremonies.


  • Why did many wood carvings not survive?
    Because wood is organic and broke down over time.
  • What was the favorite subject of ancient African woodcarvers?
    Exaggerated and stylized humans.
  • Which people created the earliest wooden sculptures from the 17thcentury BCE?
    The Kush.
  • Why did wooden masks often look like animals?
    Because the mask was supposed to represent the spirit of the animal during a ceremony.