• June 19, 2021

The Yoruba: Two Thousand Years of Workable History


By Uzor Maxim Uzoatu

The Yoruba: A New History by Akinwumi Ogundiran; Indiana University Press, Bloomington, Indiana, USA; 2020; 532pp

It strikes me as not very funny that there was a time when a celebrated historian in Oxford University, England, Professor Hugh Trevor-Roper, boldly stated that Africa had no history. The joy today is that the world can count on reputable African historians giving pride of place to the many histories of the many nationalities of Mother Africa. Akinwumi Ogundiran, Chancellor’s Professor and Professor of Africana Studies, Anthropology and History at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, USA, has in his newly released book The Yoruba: A New History offered the world “the first transdisciplinary study of the two-thousand-year journey of the Yoruba people, from their origins in a small corner of the Niger-Benue Confluence in present-day Nigeria to becoming one of the most populous cultural groups on the African continent.”

The authority of Ogundiran rings forth from the very first lines thus: “Everything has a history. This simple, self-evident statement is universally true, whether we are talking about social or natural life; time or tradition; an object, an idea, or an institution; a practice or a person; a community, a place, a polity, or a people. When we apply this maxim to a people and their culture, we immediately face questions of origins and beginnings, the processes of their becoming, and the practices that constituted their experiences across different horizons of time.”

Ogundiran takes umbrage at the literature that “treats culture as fossilized in a timeless past.” He adds: “Traditions are treated as if they have repeated themselves over several centuries without change.” He further argues that “the tendency has been to represent the period of the Christian missionaries and colonial encounters of the mid-nineteenth century as the locus and gravitational center of cultural change rather than seeing the effects of colonialism as a continuum of deep-time changes stretching back at least two millennia.”

The Yoruba: A New History is indeed a groundbreaking study of the foundational Yoruba world between ca. 300 BC and 1840 AD. Ogundiran undertakes a “cultural-historical approach” and in his eclectic engagements “history meets anthropology, material science engages mythology, pottery and poetry are reconciled in their historical contexts, and everyday philosophies and language are in conversation.”

The rigour of Ogundiran takes the gamut of oral interviews and personal communications; colonial primary documents; research notes and papers in private collections; unpublished dissertations, theses, and long essays; unpublished academic presentations; unpublished archaeology reports; published personal accounts, diaries, and primary reports; online publications and databases; newspaper publications; and published secondary works.

The first table of the book, “Periodization for the Yoruba Cultural History”, situates the first period as Pre-Archaic, between 2500 and 300 BC, when “The proto-Yoruboid evolved as a territorial language and cultural group around the Niger-Benue Confluence”. The second period, Archaic, between 300 BC and AD 300, was an “Era of intense drought; southward migrations from the ancestral Yoruboid homeland; and splitting of proto-Yoruboid into three daughter language groups – proto-Igala, proto-Itsekiri, and proto-Yoruba by 300 AD.” The third period, Early Formative, between AD 250 and 750, was marked by “emergence of a full-fledged House society with formalized political institutions headed by priest-chieftain.” The fourth period, Late Formative, between AD 650 and1050, witnessed the “emergence of divine kingship institution and ideology.” Next is the Classical period of “the rise of the Ife Empire with a vast network of client states and colonies.” The Intermediate period, between AD 1400 and 1570s, witnessed the fall of the Ife Empire, Nupe militarist aggression, the autonomy of Benin, the rise of Atlantic commercial exchanges and the arrival of the Portuguese followed by the Dutch and English. In the Restoration period, between AD 1570s and 1650, the “political landscape was transformed by warrior-kings and militaristic states such as Ilesa, Oyo, and Benin.” The final period, Atlantic, between 1630 and 1840, witnessed merchant capital revolution, Atlantic slave trade, monetized economy, dominance of Oyo political power, expansion of itinerant trading, instability as a result of the slave trade, elite factional conflicts, underclass rebellion, the jihad etc.

In fleshing out The Yoruba: A New History, Ogundiran sets the base as per: “One day in the third or second century BC, a young adult of about twenty to twenty-four years old was laid to rest in Itaakpa rockshelter (Iffe-Ijumu), in southwest Niger-Benue Confluence.” History is writ large in the personhood of the ancestor that Ogundiran gives the bona-fides of “Oni Itaakpa”, to wit, “the person of Itaakpa”. From the Person (Oni), there is growth to the House (Ile), and then the Estate (Ilu) emerges.

Crucially, Oni Itaakpa “was born soon after the onset of the six-hundred-year climactic crisis, dubbed ‘the Big Dry’. Characterized by a new seasonal pattern that reduced the duration and predictability of rainfall and increased the length and intensity of the dry season, this crisis lasted from the fourth century BC to the third century AD across West Africa.”

The Ife Glass Bead and diverse genres of arts and crafts in Ile-Ife became landmarks on the march of Yoruba civilization and history. The Ife Empire as the “city of daybreak” came to grief with the advent of the Nupe brigandage. After the atrophy, there was regeneration and the eventual rise and fall of the Oyo Empire. Further ahead lay the Atlantic slave trade in which about half a million Yoruba “crossed the Atlantic in chains” while “a few thousand more, especially from the Okun subgroup, also crossed the River Niger in chains to enter the Sokoto Caliphate.”

According to Ogundiran, “Between 1843 and 1861, the intertwined triple forces of Christianity, Western Education, and European colonial rule began to make inroads into the region. The Yoruba encounter with Western colonial and Industrial Revolution modernity began in earnest, and new practices and worldviews, as well as new yardsticks for measuring social order and value, took hold in the consciousness and aspiration of some segments of the population. The pace of Islamic influence also increased and, with Christianity, steadily gained adherents across the land.” Of course, the Yoruba communities temporarily lost their political independence to three colonial powers, to wit, British (Nigeria), French (Benin Republic), and German (Togo).

The Yoruba: A New History by Akinwumi Ogundiran is an engrossing read that is richly rewarding. The mastery of culture, history, archaeology, anthropology and sociology lends to

The Yoruba: A New History a profundity that is at once convincing and very exhaustive. Here is History with a capital H. 

=== Uzor Maxim Uzoatu is the author of God of Poetry, Satan’s Story, A Play of Ghosts and The Missing Link. A 2008 Caine Prize for African Writing nominee, he wrote the text for Scottish photographer Owen Logan’s caricature of Michael Jackson’s visit to Nigeria entitled Masquerade. He lives in Lagos and is married with children.


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