The History of Yoruba People

Ancient Era| The Development of Early Yoruba Community c. 500 BCE – 800 CE

The Age of things we met| Pre-Oduduwa Era c. 9th
– 11th century: Urbanization, Ife Primacy begins
| Oduduwa Era c. 12th and 13th century: Ife empire, Civil War, Exodus of Princes

| Post-Oduduwa Era c. 1300 – c. 1600: High Classical Ife, Primacy ends. 

Oyo and Benin rise.
Modern Era| Pre-colonial/Early Modern : 17th century – 19th century
|Mid-modern/Colonial: late 19th – mid 20th century

|Contemporary/Post-Independence/Postcolonial: mid 20th
– 21st century

As of the 7th century BCE the African peoples who lived in what is now Yorubaland are typically
referenced in academia by scholars as “Proto-Yoruboid”, using linguistic and archaeological
evidence, it is theorized that they developed by the start of the 1st millennium BCE, out of earlier
Neolithic proto-Benue-Kwa populations who had begun to expand with the extensive use of Iron
tools. Although they shared a common ethnicity and language group, they developed separate small
collections of house societies which over time grew to become mini-states.

Using this organizational
framework, by the 8th century CE, a powerful kingdom already existed in Ilé-Ifẹ̀, one of the earliest
in Africa.

The Proto-Yoruboid were characterized by many practices first developed worldwide by their proto-Benue-Kwa ancestors like cultivation of sorghum (guinea corn), cola nuts, yams and palms (for oil
and wine), iron smelting and semi-domestication of wild dogs for hunting, use of a 16-point
divination system.

Between 500 BCE – 500 CE, they experienced a total transition from stone tools to iron tools.
Evidence of Iron smelting from Ife Ijumu has been dated to 160 CE.

It appears nowhere was more technologically advanced than the House Societies that had formed in
the Ife-bowl.

At the time the Ogun deity was associated widely with stone tools, but in Ife in the
workshops of Ogun Ladin, Blacksmith began to thrive and by 500 CE, Iron tools had completely
replaced stone tools in the entire Yoruba world.

On the “Ife-blow” – according to the archaeologist, Paul Ozanne, evidence of a large settlement in
Ife since at least the 4th century BCE exists.

He states, “Ife’s geography lies in a high bowl surrounded
by hills which form a watershed for many streams flowing out through the gaps between the hills”

[Akintoye 2010: The Begining]. 

As Yoruba traditions go, life and civilization started in Ifẹ̀.

One myth
puts it that Olodumare – the supreme being – sent Ọbàtálá to create the earth, although it is
Odùduwà who finished the task.

For many reasons of which this myth is one, the people of Ife regard themselves as the conservators of the world and the oldest of mankind.

Between 250 CE-800 CE, many village communities had emerged as satellite settlements along rivers
and on hills in the Okun, Ekiti, Ondo and Ijebu areas as a result of further expansion of the proto-Yoruba (forming a clear semblance of the  Yoruba today).

Linguistic evidence also suggests this period
was characterized by the separation of the Igala language after the Igala crossed east over the river
Niger creating a natural barrier from the rest of the Yoruboid collection of house societies.

This has
been astutely termed the Early Formative Period (EFP) by Prof. Akinwunmi Ogundiran.

By the high point of the Late Formative Period (LFP: c. 800 CE to 1000 CE) 

[Also known as the Prepavement Era of Ife] those village communities in the Okun, Ekiti, Ondo and Ijebu areas began to
consolidate themselves into confederacies.


Traditions remember Ulesun, Ulale, Oba, Idoko/Udoko,
Inisa, Isolo.

Many surrounded themselves under the centralised rule of strongemen or the head of a
Mega-House titled “Owa”, many of which are the precursor to eastern Yoruba cities like Owo, Akure, Ado-Ekiti today.

And to secure their territories they built ramparts and walls like the still mysterious “Sungbo Eredo” in the Ijebu area.

This kind of political arrangement provided security and people
could spend more time engaging in other activities such as art, like with the Èsìẹ́and Èsùré stone sculptures.

It is possible the idea came from Ife also, or perhaps it was happening simultaneously because,
there, already houses were clustering together under Mega-Houses to form “mini-states” i.e. Ijugbe
mega-House ruled four minor houses: Eranyigba, Igbogbe, Ipa, and Ita-Asin; Iranje on the other hand
did not rule houses but was rather consisted of 3 houses (Idile-meta:Ideta): Ilesun, Ilale and Ilia.

Trade through the Niger river is evident in this period, as archaeological findings of jasper beads
(Àkún) begin to appear at this time.

 What is interesting however is that deposits of cryptocrystalline
silica rocks for the manufacture of these beads are limited in Yorubaland, becoming more abundant
further north, giving advantage to northern Yoruba polities who could import them more easily from
the Mande-Djerma-Dendi axis, although Ife would challenge this by manufacturing glass beads of
different variety (primarily the red Iyùn and blue Ṣẹ̀gi).

The Start of the Oduduwa Era is where Yoruba history properly starts, not only in terms of well known traditions but also the framework of the time has shaped Yoruba society till now.

This was
the age of revolution – political, cultural, and religious; with each remembered ancestor of this era
being a revolutionary in one way or the other.

First characterised by the Oduduwa-Obatala Conflict in the Ife Confederacy or perhaps Federation,
of 13 autonomous mini-states or Elú in the Ife-bowl.

Each Elu had its Oba but the Confederacy
honoured one of such Oba with leadership.

Traditions remember Ọ̀rànfẹ̀as the first of such leaders,
followed by Ọbàtálá who was challenged and defeated by Odùduwà after disagreements on matters
of resettlements, the city wall and extent of autonomy for the mini-states.

Oduduwa himself was a
resettled chief from the hill community of Oke-Ora who moved into the Ife-bowl at Idio.

The Confederacy would split due to this civil war and remained split for considerable time even after
fighting had stopped between of them, prompting the saying “Ifẹ̀mẹfà, Elú méje ́ ”. 

6 mini-states
preferring Oduduwa’s model and 7 preferring the status-quo.

Continue bellow 

Alaafin Oyo Ile-Palace
A full bronze  (copper) of an Ife ruler discovered at Ife (Ife, Yorubaland, Nigeria)

The Ogboni may have been founded in
this time as their role is to preserve the rights of the indigenes and “harmonize the diversity of
interest groups and create common ground for dialogue” [Ogundiran 2020:73] often serving as
checks and balances against the excesses of the King in a Yoruba Kingdom.

The two factions at Ife would rule separately until the son of Oranfe, Ọbalùfọ̀n Ògbógbódirin from
Obatala’s faction was recognised as sole ruler and either he or his son Obalufon II Alayemore would
officially begin to carry the tilte “Ooni”.

Obalufon II used the Ogboni to unite all warring factions
enough to get support to finalise the Unification of Ife and do away with the Elu system.

Second characteristic of this era is Ife’s primacy in the Yoruba world. Even before Oduduwa became
Olofin, Ife seems to have successfully established satellite settlements in all direction and used them

to secure passage for the trade of their goods and services. 

This is the same Ife with the Oríkì
(panegyric) “Ifẹ̀oòyè, Ifẹ̀oòdáyé, ibi tí ojúmọ́tí mọ́wá, Ifẹ̀olórí ayé gbogbo” – (Ife of survivors, Ife
the cradle of the world, the place of daybreak, Ife the leader of the entire world)
All kinds of goods were sold at Ife markets but none more than finished glass beads which were all
manufactured in the shrine of Olokun, patronage of which came under Oduduwa himself who
traditions now associated the deity of the ocean and the mother of wealth as his wife.

Most of the market outside Ife but also including the markets in Ife were founded by Oranfe and
Obatala during their time. 

The Okeoja mini-state was so named for its active economic and
commercial significance, by the reign of Oduduwa had come to be dominated by Ejio, a son of
Oranfe who seemed to have supported Oduduwa. Oosa Oloja associated with Obatala (possibly identical) founded Ifon Orolu; Oosa Ogiyan (another name associated with Obatala) founded Ejigbo:
two primal market towns that were outposts for Ife.

Ife had successfully sired many towns, from the
river Niger in the north to the ocean in the south, either by founding them or by bringing already
founded towns into its sphere of influence and reshaping them. 

And interestingly, none of this was
through military conquest or intimidation but commercial monopoly and spiritual guidance.

Third characteristic of this era is the dispersal of princes and nobles from the Mega-Houses of Ilé Ifẹ̀.

Traditions give “16” as the number of new kingdoms founded by sons, grandsons and other
followers of Oduduwa that were established during the course of the Oduduwa-Obatala conflict.

This dispersal was especially motivated by Obalufon Ogbogbodirin aka Obamakin becoming sole ruler.

This is the period of the origin of the line of the following Yoruba kings: Obanta Ogboroganlada
who became Awujale of Ijebu-Ode; Ajibogun Obokun his brother who became Owa Ijesa; Orangun
Ifagbamila who founded Ila Yara; Sopasan who is the ancestor of the Alaketu line; Deji (Ajaponda) of
Akure; Owa Ooye of Imesi; Oore of Otun Moba; Owa (Olofin) Idanre; Olowu of Owu
Obaloran of Iloran House in Ilode Ile-ife and Obadio of Idio House of the former Elu Omologun are
said to be male line descendants of Oduduwa.
The dispersal ended with Oranmiyan, who left with a large entourage eastward. According to
Egharevba, his entourage included the ancestors of the Ojima of Okeluse, Oluawure of Usen, the
Chiefs Ogiefa, Oloton and Ihama of Benin and Edigin of Use.

The route of Oranmiyan and his
subsequent experience in his sojourn give us clues on his intentions as different narratives don’t
agree on why Oranmiyan was there.

Coming into the Edo sphere from Ekiti-Owo axis and first known to have settled at Usẹ̀n.

It was at
Usen Oranmiyan plotted to invade the polity then known as Igodomigodo, which had recently
disgraced its king out of the palace and attempted a trial at republican rule. Evian who was a relative
of the disgraced King (Ogiso Owodo) had ruled with support of the people and the nobles, but he
also wished his son, Irebor to rule after him, which did not go down well with the Edionisen class of
chiefs. Sending Ojima to Okeluse, Oranmiyan consolidated his presence at Usen before crossing the
ovia river at Unuame to meet the Edionisen at Egor.

From the traditions of this area as well as the
alternative names of these two towns: Okeluse (also called Okeluhe), and Usen (also called Ufe
kekere: small Ife), it is evident that Oranmiyan was an Ife expansionist.

It seems the Bini (Edo)
narrative of the Edionisen going to Ife (“Uhe” in the Edo language) to request for help against Irebor
was made to Oranmiyan at Usen, rather than to the Ooni of Ife at Ile-Ife.

Although Oranmiyan would secure authority or influence over a number of communities like Usama
and Uselu with the help of the Edionisen, he was never able to dispossess Irebor who had styled
himself “Ogiamien” [Ogie era mien, ai mien Oba = It is Ogie we have, not Oba].

He left the area and
continued in his sojourn the opposite direction until he founded Oyo
His son with an Egor princess would become Oba of Benin and one of his descendants Oba Ewedo
finally defeated the lineage of the Ogiamien and consolidated the Benin monarchy as it was up until
the British Punitive expedition of 1897.

Adeyemi Akande. (2016). “Migration and the Yorùbá Myth of Origin”.

European Journal of Arts 2016
Akinwumi Ogundiran.

(2020). “The Yoruba: A new history”
Banji Akintoye. (2010).

“A history of the Yoruba people”
Jacob Egharevba.

(1953). “A short history of Benin”
Rowland Abiodun.

(2014) “Yoruba Art and Language: Seeking the African in African Art.

History compiled by Mark Akin

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