Development of the Ife Kingdom and Yoruba Culture Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The city of Ife became the first center of power in West Africa’s forest area. It was the site from which distinctive Yoruba cultural characteristics emerged, including the development of complex trade networks, urbanization and the formation of city-states, and the creation of hereditary monarchies led by ruler-priests.

Summary of Event

Yorubaland stretches northward from the Atlantic coast to the savannahs above Nigeria’s forest area. The city of Ife, located in the northern limits of the forest, is situated in the heart of Yorubaland and at the core of Yoruba life. Archaeological evidence indicates substantial settlement there from as early as 900, and it flourished as a city-state from the eleventh through the fifteenth centuries. [kw]Development of the Ife Kingdom and Yoruba Culture (11th-15th centuries) [kw]Ife Kingdom and Yoruba Culture, Development of the (11th-15th centuries) [kw]Yoruba Culture, Development of the Ife Kingdom and (11th-15th centuries) Yorubas Ife kingdom Africa;11th-15th cent.: Development of the Ife Kingdom and Yoruba Culture[1430] Cultural and intellectual history;11th-15th cent.: Development of the Ife Kingdom and Yoruba Culture[1430] Government and politics;11th-15th cent.: Development of the Ife Kingdom and Yoruba Culture[1430] Trade and commerce;11th-15th cent.: Development of the Ife Kingdom and Yoruba Culture[1430] Oduduwa

Ile-Ife (the homeland of Ife) is considered to be the birthplace of the Yoruba. It is their cultural and spiritual center and is the source from which all major Yoruba dynasties claim legitimacy. Yet its primacy is not easily defined and much of its past remains obscure. As most written accounts date from the nineteenth century, reconstruction of the precolonial history of Ife and the Yoruba relies on interpretation of oral traditions, linguistic studies, and archaeological evidence.

Oral traditions vary in detail but contain the same essentials, lending support to claims of a shared Yoruba past. Narratives of creation and origin all center on Ife. Tradition states that Oduduwa Oduduwa (legendary) reigned as the first king. According to some accounts, he descended from heaven; others say he arrived from somewhere in the northeast. The narratives claim that his sons and grandsons were sent forth from Ife to establish the ruling dynasties of various Yoruba states and the neighboring kingdom of Benin.

Archaeological evidence shows that the forested areas of southwest Nigeria have been inhabited for thousands of years. Excavations southeast of Ife, for example, indicate occupation as early as the tenth millennium b.c.e. Linguistic studies of the Niger-Congo language family show that Yoruba is several thousand years old and that it has been affected by two movements of immigrants who spoke languages closely related to that of the original inhabitants of the area. It is believed that these migrations began around 700.

Examination of traditional narratives in light of archaeological and linguistic studies suggests that the stories of Oduduwa and his progeny reflect distant memories of immigrants belonging to a dominant but not alien cultural group, who established sovereignty at Ife and later established additional settlements among local inhabitants. Such studies suggest that the process of Yoruba state formation came not from conquest but from assimilation. It has been further speculated that the immigrants were originally from the grassland areas to the northeast, where methods of cultivation were more advanced and where inhabitants were familiar with Sudanic concepts of state organization and kingship.

There are few clues regarding the interaction between the immigrants and indigenous residents. It is evident that by the end of the first millennium, the emerging Yoruba had entered a new stage of development. This era was characterized by an extensive population engaged in forest farming and iron smelting. The time period was further distinguished by the emergence of the interrelated institutions of town life and the formation of large states, developments unique in the history of the forest regions.

Conditions in the forest region were not particularly conducive to the rise of urbanism and state formation. The dense undergrowth and the coastal mangrove swamps hindered agriculture and commerce. Nevertheless, although they emerged later than the savannah states of Mali, Ghana, Songhai, Bornu, or Hausa, early Yoruba polities such as Ife were established in the forest areas; later city-states were developed in the savannah areas to the north.

In the eleventh century, Ife emerged as the forest region’s first major power. There were a number of contributing factors. Some have suggested that urban settlement was a result of military necessity, indicated by defensive walls built around Ife and most other Yoruba communities. Others have emphasized the evolution of metal technology, introduced in the area around 300 to 500, which provided better tools and implements for farming. The large-scale cultivation of yams, plantains, and bananas enabled the support of a large population.

Commerce played a major role in the centralization of Yoruba city-states. Ife’s proximity to the forest-savannah boundary and the Niger River made it a center for the interchange of ideas and products. There is evidence that Ife produced glass beads, cotton cloth, and metal works. Those manufactures along with camwood dye, kola nuts, and various foods from the forest were exchanged for products made and grown in the grasslands. Trade;Africa Africa;trade

In addition to its location for agriculture and trade, Ife was a center for specialized political and spiritual functions. Traditions claim that Ife was the site of the first monarchy. Supporting archaeological evidence indicates that it was functioning as a city-state as early as 1000, whereas other Yoruba city-states did not emerge until the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.

The positioning of Ife as the seat of early monarchy is further supported by the brass and terra-cotta sculptures discovered there. They are believed to portray the rulers, called onis, and members of the ruling class. They were possibly used in ceremonies for the dead. The works were created with a complex lost-wax metal technology using copper and its alloys. As copper is not now found in Nigeria, the metal was probably secured through trade. The existence of these artworks provides evidence of powerful patrons who supported skilled artists and supplied the scarce and expensive metal. The naturalistic style, which has affinities with terra-cotta images from the earlier Nok culture in central Nigeria, distinguishes it from other African art. Scientific dating places Ife’s terra-cotta works in the twelfth through fourteenth centuries, and the lost-wax figures in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Sculpture;Africa Africa;sculpture

According to traditions, the diffusion of kingship took place through the migration of royal family members from Ife. Each major city became the capital of a city-state ruled by a hereditary king, who functioned as a ruler-priest and who claimed ancestry from the deified Oduduwa. Dynastic links with Ife were critical in legitimizing claims of royalty. Lengthy king lists were recited to prove Ife origin of royal lineages, regalia from Ife were used in coronation rites, and deceased monarchs were sent to Ife for burial.

There have been several, although intermittent, archaeological studies to determine the size and scope of Ife. Although it has been suggested that the present town of Ife is not located at its original site, archaeological discoveries beneath its potsherd pavements have produced radiocarbon dates of the tenth and twelfth centuries. It is certain that the ancient town occupied a greater area than that of the present walled enclosure. Archaeologists have been impeded by dense forests, high annual rainfall, and the fact that Yoruba structures were built of mud from the site, which makes it difficult to distinguish between collapsed buildings or walls and the surrounding dirt.

Nevertheless, excavations have revealed older walls that extend beyond current structures. In addition, potsherd pavements have been discovered under the present town walls, indicating that these defenses were constructed after older structures related to the pavements were gone. Although evidence indicates that the city underwent periods of contraction, perhaps a consequence of war, Ife was a large urban center with a possible land area of 18.5 square miles (30 square kilometers).


The Yoruba developed highly nucleated villages and became the most urbanized African culture of the precolonial era. They centralized into individual city-states, each with its own capital ruled by a hereditary priest-king. Their economies were founded on commerce.

Ife was the earliest of the Yoruba city-states and the site from which many Yoruba cultural traits emerged. Located between the forest and savannah areas, it was well situated to become a major commercial center. According to tradition, the first Yoruba monarchy originated at Ife, along with the concept of hereditary rule. It was here that the renowned royal sculptures were created. By the second millennium, the Yoruba had developed a pantheon of gods and narratives, and although these took different forms, they centered on Ife—the purported site of earth’s creation.

Ife tradition alleges that the city-states were linked in a spiritual and political confederation under the oni, who served as the senior representative of the descendants of Oduduwa. Other narratives indicate that their confederacy, if it existed at all, was a loose one. With sixteenth century military and commercial expansion of the northern city-state of Oyo and the neighboring kingdom of Benin, Ife declined. It lost commercial and political significance, but it retained the spiritual and cultural status of Ile-Ife—the homeland of Yoruba civilization.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Akinjogbin, I. A. Milestones and Concepts in Yoruba History and Culture: A Key to Understanding Yoruba History. Ibadan, Nigeria: Olu-Akin, 2002. Examines the history of the Yoruba people and culture. Maps, bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Davidson, Basil. West Africa Before the Colonial Era: A History to 1850. New York: Longman, 1998. An overview of early West African social, political, and economic history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Falola, Toyin, ed. Yoruba Historiography. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991. This compilation of articles examines the issue of sources in exploring the history of Yoruba culture.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Johnson, Samuel. The History of the Yorubas. 1897. Reprint. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1966. A traditional version of Yoruba precolonial history that has been a source of debate among historians.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Law, Robin. The Oyo Empire, c. 1600-1936. Brookfield, Vt.: Gregg Revivals, 1991. Although primarily concerned with Oyo, this book discusses the early history of the Yoruba and the role of Ife.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Smith, Robert S. Kingdoms of the Yoruba. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1988. A survey of Yoruba precolonial history.

Categories: History