What was life like in the Middle Ages for people of the Yoruba homeland?
Archeological digs and accidental finds provide indications about how the people of Yoruba homeland lived.
From these we know the Yoruba of the Middle Ages had paved streets, created breathtaking artworks from copper, brass, terracotta, and stone; secured their cities with monumental walls and moats, wove their own fabric and manufactured their own beads.
There is a certain mystery in all this that they achieved so much in other aspects but never had a system of writing to document history or language. Can this be possible? Or is the world missing some great clues somewhere? That’s probably a topic to be considered in detail in another post…
Anyway, back to the Yoruba way of life, in the Middle Ages.
Beads 6th Century AD
Stunning and beautiful beaded items have been apart of Yoruba culture since the 6th century AD.
“…there is evidence of Yoruba beadwork beginning from the 6th century, about 300 years before the beginning of mass glass bead importation from Europe” -(Stokes, Debora. “Beads, Body and Soul: Art and Light in the Yoruba Universe: UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural history, Los Angeles, California”. 1998. African Arts)
” For the Yoruba people beads are not only used to decorate ceremonial items such as headpieces, necklaces, drum aprons and sheaths, but also used to for spiritual purposes, by those who know how to hone them properly such as priests and diviners”-Yoruba Beadwork – An Essay by Michelle Assaad
City Walls 10th Century
Going by the relics discovered so far and written about by Europeans in the first instance there appears to be a flurry of activity from 10th to the 12th century. Many of the Yoruba artefacts are dated to around this time. The earliest of these is Sungbo’s Eredo.
Built by the order of a wealthy childless Queen Bilikisu Sungbo “the Eredo closes a vast area, nearly 40 kllometres north to south and 35 kilometres east to west – indisputably the boundary of a slzeable political entity, probably a powerful kingdom or queendom. ”
” This massive, 20 metre high, thousand year old kingdom boundary rampart snakes through 160 kilometres of thick rainforest undergrowth and freshwater swamp forest around Ijebu-Ode in southwest Nigeria.” – PJ Darling
“Researchers also estimated that it took about three and a half million man-hours to construct the Eredo- an estimate which is about a million more than that used to build the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt. It is amazing to observe the skill and precision with which the ancient Eredo builders kept the rampart on course irrespective of the obstacles they encountered, without compass or aerial photographs” – Naijatreks
Artworks 11th to 15th Century
“In 1910 the German anthropologist Leo Frobenius visited the Nigerian city of Ife and brought several ancient terracotta heads back to Germany. He claimed a Greek colony in Africa produced the incredibly naturalistic sculpture he discovered (Willett 1967: 14).” -Ife, William Dewey
“Through archaeological dating and other methods it has been proven conclusively that the culture and art of Ife is entirely African in origin and without foreign influence, yet such prejudices and misconceptions as Frobenius’s have unfortunately continued. We know that an incredible body of artwork in stone, terracotta, copper, and brass (and probably other materials that have now disintegrated) were made in the Yoruba city of Ife from the latter part of the first millennium up to the 15th century (Drewal and Schildkrout 2009).” – Ife, William Dewey
“The art of Ife is unique in Africa for the degree of naturalism that is portrayed, and the artists were so skillful at depicting flesh over bone that the sculptures give the appearance of true portraits.” – Ife, William Dewey
“This example and several other heads were made entirely of copper. Copper is a very difficult metal to cast if it is not alloyed with tin and lead to make bronze (the material the Igbo Ukwu casters used), or zinc to make brass (used by Ife casters in other pieces). Molten copper does not flow smoothly and easily oxidizes, but the Ife casters were so skillful in devising techniques to overcome this that hardly a flaw can be detected.”- Ife, William Dewey
Soapstone figures from the Yoruba town of Esie in Igbomina
“Esie is an Igbomina Yoruba town in Kwara State of Nigeria lying about 48 kilometres South-East of Ilorin and about 128 kilometer north of Ife. Esie is generally known as a home of 800 soapstone figures.” – Esie Stone Images in Igbomina by Appolus Ibeabuchi Oziogu
“It is estimated that they date from the 12th to 15th centuries C.E. (A.D.) and were perhaps associated with the nearby ancient Yoruba kingdom of Oba (Pemberton 1989).”- Esie, William Dewey
Paved streets 11th – 15th Century
“Potsherd pavement formed part of the material ensembles of cultural efflorescence in the region between the 11th and 15th centuries…. The most extensive occurrence of potsherd pavement at Ile-Ife , where not only courtyard floors but also roads were paved with potsherds arranged on their edges in herringbone pattern; it is likely that almost all roads within the city walls of ile ife were paved with potsherds”- Sources and Methods in African History: Spoken, Written, Unearthed by Toyin Falola and Christian Jennings
“Several samples of potsherd pavement were recovered during excavation and archaeological reconnaissance of six sites, along the trade and migration route of the Yoruba of southwestern Nigeria.”- Chemical Characterizations of some potsherd pavements from parts of Yorubaland in southwestern Nigeria. OA Ige, BA Ogunfolakan, EOB Ajayi
Textiles 11th – 15th Century
And lastly textiles….”A precise date for the earliest presence and use of the horizontal and vertical looms in Ilorin is unknown. According to Gilfoy (1987:15), ‘Archaeological textiles, dating from the eleventh to the fifteenth century, have been found in several locations across the Sahara measuring about 14-25cm wide’. Thus, the cotton textiles were probably woven on a loom with shafts and treadles such as still used in Ilorin. The availability of similar looms across the Sahara, depict a common origin and diffusion. Therefore, considering the strategic location of Ilorin as an entrepot in the Trans-Saharan Trade, the loom might have evolved in Ilorin from an ancient prototype related to the Berber’s ground loom.”
-REVISITING THE DEBATE ON INDIGENOUS KNOWLEDGE AND AFRICAN DEVELOPMENT: LESSONS FROM ILORIN TEXTILE CLUSTER1 Olukayode Abiodun Faleye Joseph Ayo Babalola University
Partial looms, Iseyin, Yoruba land. Alistair Lamb, SI website
Historians like Professor Stephen Adebanji vividly detail what daily life must have been like for the Yoruba of the Middle Ages in his book A History of the Yoruba People.