As of the 7th century BCE the African peoples who lived in Yorubaland were not initially known as the Yoruba, although they shared a common ethnicity and language group. By the 8th century, a powerful Yoruba kingdom already existed in Ile-Ife, one of the earliest in Africa.
The historical Yoruba develop in situ, out of earlier Mesolithic Volta-Niger populations, by the 1st millennium BCE. Oral history recorded under the Oyo Empire derives the Yoruba as an ethnic group from the population of the older kingdom of Ile-Ife. The Yoruba were the dominant cultural force in southern Nigeria as far back as the 11th century.
The Yoruba are among the most urbanized people in Africa. For centuries before the arrival of the British colonial administration most Yoruba already lived in well structured urban centres organized around powerful city-states (Ìlú) centred around the residence of the Oba. In ancient times, most of these cities were fortresses, with high walls and gates. Yoruba cities have always been among the most populous in Africa. Archaeological findings indicate that Òyó-Ilé or Katunga, capital of the Yoruba empire of Oyo (fl. between the 11th and 19th centuries CE), had a population of over 100,000 people (the largest single population of any African settlement at that time in history). For a long time also, Ibadan, one of the major Yoruba cities, was the largest city in the whole of Sub Saharan Africa. Today, Lagos (Yoruba: Èkó), another major Yoruba city, with a population of over twenty million, remains the largest on the African continent.
Archaeologically, the settlement of Ile-Ife showed features of urbanism in the 12th–14th century era. In the period around 1300 CE the artists at Ile-Ife developed a refined and naturalistic sculptural tradition in terracotta, stone and copper alloy – copper, brass, and bronze many of which appear to have been created under the patronage of King Obalufon II, the man who today is identified as the Yoruba patron deity of brass casting, weaving and regalia. The dynasty of kings at Ile-Ife, which is regarded by the Yoruba as the place of origin of human civilization, remains intact to this day. The urban phase of Ile-Ife before the rise of Oyo, c. 1100–1600, a significant peak of political centralization in the 12th century) is commonly described as a “golden age” of Ile-Ife. The oba or ruler of Ile-Ife is referred to as the Ooni of Ife.
Oyo and Ile-Ife
Ife continues to be seen as the “Spiritual Homeland” of the Yoruba. The city was surpassed by the Oyo Empire as the dominant Yoruba military and political power in the 17th century.
The Oyo Empire under its oba, known as the Alaafin of Oyo, was active in the African slave trade during the 18th century. The Yoruba often demanded slaves as a form of tribute of subject populations, who in turn sometimes made war on other peoples to capture the required slaves. Part of the slaves sold by the Oyo Empire entered the Atlantic slave trade.
Most of the city states were controlled by Obas (or royal sovereigns with various individual titles) and councils made up of Oloyes, recognised leaders of royal, noble and, often, even common descent, who joined them in ruling over the kingdoms through a series of guilds and cults. Different states saw differing ratios of power between the kingships and the chiefs’ councils. Some, such as Oyo, had powerful, autocratic monarchs with almost total control, while in others such as the Ijebu city-states, the senatorial councils held more influence and the power of the ruler or Ọba, referred to as the Awujale of Ijebuland, was more limited.
Yoruba settlements are often described as primarily one or more of the main social groupings called “generations”:
- The “first generation” includes towns and cities known as original capitals of founding Yoruba kingdoms or states.
- The “second generation” consists of settlements created by conquest.
- The “third generation” consists of villages and municipalities that emerged following the internecine wars of the 19th century.
History of the Yoruba people
The documented history of the Yoruba people begins with the Oyo Empire, which became dominant in the early 17th century. The older traditions of the formerly dominant Ile-Ife kingdom are largely oral in nature.
The people who lived in Yorubaland, at least by the seventh century BC, were not initially known as the Yoruba, although they shared a common ethnicity and language group. The historical Yoruba develop in situ, out of earlier (Mesolithic) Volta-Niger populations, by the 1st millennium BC.
Archaeologically, the settlement at Ile-Ife can be dated to the 4th century BC, with urban structures appearing in the 12th century (the urban phase of Ile-Ife before the rise of Oyo, ca. 1100-1600, is sometimes described as a “golden age” of Ile-Ife).
Ife was surpassed by the Oyo Empire as the dominant Yoruba military and political power between 1600 and 1800 AD. The nearby kingdom of Benin was also a powerful force between 1300 and 1850.
Most of the city states were controlled by Obas, elected priestly monarchs, and councils made up of Oloyes, recognised leaders of royal, noble, and often even common descent, who joined them in ruling over the kingdoms through a series of guilds and cults. Different states saw differing ratios of power between the kingship and the chiefs’ council. Some, such as Oyo, had powerful, autocratic monarchs with almost total control, while in others such as the Ijebu city-states, the senatorial councils were supreme and the Ọba served as something of a figurehead.
In all cases, however, Yoruba monarchs were subject to the continuing approval of their constituents as a matter of policy, and could be easily compelled to abdicate for demonstrating dictatorial tendencies or incompetence. The order to vacate the throne was usually communicated through an aroko or symbolic message, which usually took the form of parrots’ eggs delivered in a covered calabash bowl by the senators.
The Yoruba eventually established a federation of city-states under the political ascendancy of the city state of Oyo, located on the Northern fringes of Yorubaland in the savanna plains between the forests of present Southwest Nigeria and the Niger River.
Following a Jihad led by Uthman Dan Fodio and a rapid consolidation of the Hausa city states of contemporary northern Nigeria, the Fulani Sokoto Caliphate invaded and annexed the buffer Nupe Kingdom. It then began to advance southwards into Ọyọ lands. Shortly afterwards, its armies overran the Yoruba military capital of Ilorin, and then sacked and destroyed Ọyọ-Ile, the royal seat of the Ọyọ Empire.
Following this, Ọyọ-Ile was abandoned, and the Ọyọ retreated south to the present city of Oyo (formerly known as “Ago d’Oyo”, or “Oyo Atiba”) in a forested region where the cavalry of the Sokoto Caliphate was less effective. Further attempts by the Sokoto Caliphate to expand southwards were checked by the Yoruba who had rallied in defence under the military leadership of the ascendant Ibadan clan, which rose from the old Oyo Empire, and of the Ijebu city-states.
However, the Oyo hegemony had been dealt a mortal blow. The other Yoruba city-states broke free of Oyo dominance, and subsequently became embroiled in a series of internecine conflicts that soon metamorphosed into a full scale civil war. These events weakened the southern Yorubas in their resistance to British colonial and military invasions. In 1960, greater Yorubaland was subsumed into the Federal Republic of Nigeria. The historical records of the Yoruba, which became more accessible in the nineteenth century with the more permanent arrival of the Europeans, tell of heavy Jihad raids by the mounted Fulani warriors of the north as well as of endemic intercity warfare amongst the Yoruba themselves. Archaeological evidence of the greatness of their ancient civilization in the form of, amongst other things, impressive architectural achievements like Sungbo’s Eredo that are centuries old, nevertheless abound.