Yoruba History in Brief


30 November 2020

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Yoruba History in Brief

Geography & Population

The Yoruba people’s geographical location is South-West Nigeria, including the substantial Yoruba communities in Benin, Togo, and Sierra Leone. The sum of this area is called Yorubaland (Ilẹ̀ Yorùbá). Most of the terrain is forest, woodland savannah, rich farmland, or coastal swamps and lagoon. Our uniqueness depicts a rich cultural heritage that glued us together as the Yoruba nation, which is inseparable from our nomenclature wherever we are. Ilẹ̀ Yorùbá is the homeland and cultural region of the Yoruba people in West Africa, which spans the modern-day countries of Nigeria, Togo and Benin, and covers a total land area of 142,114 km 2 or about the same size as the combined land areas of Greece and Montenegro, of which 106,016 km 2 (74.6%) lies within Nigeria, 18.9% in Benin, and the remaining 6.5% is in Togo.






The Yoruba nation has a larger cultural group in the African continent, with over 50 million people. The word ‘Yoruba’ describes both the language and a nation of people living across Nigeria and the Benin Republic and Togo in an area of forest and savannah. Yoruba cities have always been among the most populous in Africa. Archaeological findings indicate that Òyó-Ilé or Katunga, capital of the Yoruba empire (fl. between the 11th and 19th centuries CE), had a population of over 100,000 people. Also, Ibadan, one of the major Yoruba cities and founded in the 1800s, was the largest city in the entire of Sub Saharan Africa. Today, Lagos(Eko), another major Yoruba city, with a population of over 20 million people, remains the largest on the African continent.



Yoruba History


Yorubaland covers the modern-day countries of Nigeria, Togo, and Benin. The term (Yoruba) to describe ethnicity did not come about until the 16th century and wasn’t used widely until the 19th century. Before then, the Yoruba people bears many names depending on who was acknowledging them and the attributes he/she determined to use. For instance, the Europeans referred to them as Akú, whereas in Cuba, this referred to as O luku mi.


Yorubaland was originally makeup of 16 kingdoms and many other sub-kingdoms and territories that are second-order branches of the initial 16. Every community has to be led by a king, which each may have a different political way of running the community affairs. In some communities, the Oba had complete control, while in others, the council members made most decisions. Kingship is passed down through generations, but not in the traditional way sometimes. An electoral college would hold to select a member of one of the many royal families. A royal family could be excluded from kingship if any member or person of that family committed a crime related to rape, theft, or murder.
By the 8th century AD, the Yoruba created one of the earliest known kingdoms in Africa. A system of defensive walls was erect called Songo’s Eredo. More than 99 miles long and 66 ft high, it is the largest pre-colonial monument in Africa, more than the Great Pyramid.


Sprouting up organized urban cities since the 12th century, the Yoruba surpassed most other cultures nearby. They created towns with fortresses and high walls centered around the Oba, and most Yoruba lived in well-structured homes.


In the 15th century, the Oyo Empire was founded and became one of the largest West African states. Ruled by an Oba, also known as Alaafin of Oyo, the Empire eventually grew so big they began having a presence among neighboring kingdoms. The Yoruba are among the most urbanized people in Africa. For centuries before the arrival of the British colonial regime most Yoruba already lived in well structured urban centers organized around powerful city (Ilu) and states (Ipinle), which centered around the residence of the Kings (Obas). In ancient times, most of these cities were stronghold, with high walls and gates.



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 King (Oba) or ruler of Ile-Ife is referred to as the Ooni of Ife.


Historically, in the 17th to 18th centuries, the Oyo Empire took part in the African slave trade, and the Yoruba were among the most profoundly besieged people.


In more recent decades, Lagos has risen to be the most prominent city of the Yoruba people and Yoruba cultural and economic influence. Noteworthy among the developments of Lagos were uniquely styled architecture introduced by returning Yoruba communities from Brazil and Cuba known as Amaros/Agudas.


Yoruba settlements are often described as primarily one or more of the main social groupings called “generations such the “1st generation” includes towns and cities, which is known as original capitals of founding Yoruba kingdoms or states, the “second generation” consists of settlements created by conquest, and the “3rd generation” consists of villages and municipalities that emerged following the internecine wars of the 19th century.


The Yoruba religion is the religious belief and practice of the Yoruba people both in Africa (chiefly in Nigeria and Benin Republic), and in the Americas. It has influenced and given birth to several Afro-American religions such as Santeria in Cuba and Candomblé in Brazil. Though specific numbers are unknown, it is possibly the largest African born religion in the world. Though claims are made for an ultimately Egyptian/African origin to Judaism, Judaism was finalized as the religion of the Hebrew people of the Levant. Christianity and Islam also have long histories in Africa, but neither of those can claim to be African identified in origin, in their present state, like the African tradition of the Yoruba. While much of Africa has increasingly adopted foreign religions, many indigenous faiths remain. The lack of proselytizing or establishing written “rule books” prevents these religions from spreading as much as Islam or Christianity. Regardless, they survive, both in Africa and the Western Hemisphere. Santeria is one of the many syncretic religions created in the Americas. It is based on the West African religions brought to the Americas by slaves, forcibly relocated, to the Caribbean to work the sugar plantations. These slaves carried with them their own religious traditions, including traditions of: herbalism including holistic medicine and possession trance for communicating with the ancestors and deities.


There is also the use of animal sacrifice and the practice of sacred drumming and dance. Those slaves who were brought to the Caribbean as well as Central and South America were nominally converted to Catholicism. However, they were able to preserve some of their traditions by fusing together various Dahomeans (Benin), BaKongo (Kongo people) and Lukumi (Yoruba people) beliefs with rituals. In addition, these rituals and beliefs were synchronized with elements from the surrounding Catholic culture as well as the beliefs of local indigenous peoples. In Cuba this religious tradition has evolved into what we now recognize as Santeria. Today hundreds of thousands of Americans participate in this ancient religion. Some are fully committed priests and priestesses, others are “godchildren” (yahwo) or members of a particular house-tradition, and many are clients seeking help with their everyday problems. Many are of Hispanic and Caribbean descent but as the religion moves out of the inner cities and into the suburbs a growing number are of African-American and European-American heritage. As the Ifa religion of Africa was recreated in the Americas, it was transformed.

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