Though many know that  beads were one of the products traded in exchange for humans between Europeans and West Africans in the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade era, not many know that the Yoruba had their own bead manufacturing industry at the time.

yoruba bead11



Evidence of bead manufacture among the Yoruba dates as far as the 11th Century AD. Scientific evidence  exists indicating that blue- green glass beads made in Ile-Ife were being traded outside the Yoruba area long before the era of European contact.

yoruba beaded art
19th century Yoruba beaded tunic and crown

The Yoruba  of the Middle Ages had 3 methods of bead manufacturing

  • They used powdered-glass  to make beads  from finely ground blue, green, and red glass
  • They polished beads into shape from broken glass
  • They drew beads from heated  dark greenish and medium blue glass. This method was considered the most sophisticated and the beads created differ from the European traded ones found at most sites in West Africa because of their unusual length, method of production and other attributes.

Evidence exists that the glass used in bead production by the Yoruba was indigenous to the region . The composition of the cobalt blue and blue green segi glass used  are not found anywhere else in the world. This means that the glass and the beads made from them  were manufactured in Ile Ife as part of the unique Yoruba glass making industry. Reference : Lankton, Ige, and Rehren (2006)


The Yoruba generally refer to all red beads as iyùn, and all blue beads as sègì.




19th century Yoruba Beaded Belts

yoruba bead1
Diviner’s bag


19th century beaded egungun cap





As well as the visual and decorative power, the Yoruba people attributed  spiritual power and religious meaning to beads.  With this intense faith in beads, Yoruba have made waist beads for fertility, beauty, seduction, necklaces bracelets and many other objects central to daily and religious life using seeds, husks, mollusc shells, cowrie shells, indigenous brass beads as well as indigenous and imported glass beads .  Beads denoted  faith,  and social and religious rank. In  the main, glass beads were for the use of  kings and the royal priesthood, and adorned spiritual objects.





In this photo below, the newly crowned Oonirisa carries a traditional staff of office “Opa Ase”. The Opa Ase is covered in thousands of intricately patterned colourful glass beads. Clearly, beads are an integral part of Yoruba royal heirlooms now as they were centuries ago when they, and human beings were being traded in Africa.


ooni receiving staff aregbesola




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24 thoughts on “A History of Yoruba Beads

      1. If the Yoruba manufactured the beads what exactly did the Europeans give them in exchange for humans? More beads. Or did they exchange the beads for white slaves.

      2. Yoruba civil war was ongoing at the time. It lasted about 100 years. Guns were a key commodity exchanged for prisoners of war

  1. But for disruption in evolution process journey in development the Yoruba would have advanced, in technology, economy would have been wonderfully developed. Too bad, European colonial economic adventure truncated Yoruba socioeconomic progression. What now about conspiracy of principalities and powers political, economic and spiritual ? Who would deliver the Yoruba from the powers of darkness continually in search of evil forces to collaborate with to keep the race down in abject poverty in spite of inexhaustible human and material endowments ? Among others, it would take a reawakening, a new quality of reasoning in an age where ‘ civilization’ is determined by social perverts hunted by Islamic terrorists everywhere you face!

  2. Ha, I love this post on beads! It brings back childhood memory of my older sister. She had lots of waist beads, spent lots of time colour coordinating – that drove my mother to the wall. But my sister just wanted to have some fun, she loved the noises they make when she walks… she is the bravest of us all.

    Thanks for sharing.

    1. Thank you for your comment. I’ve worn them in the past. They’re also a good way to keep an eye on ones weight gain. Your sister sounds like a fun person to know!

  3. Great read about the beads and also a confirmation of the true meaning and value of the beads. Proudly Segilola eleuinju ege.

  4. Ileke, Iyun, Segi, Ide ,Baba, Oje were among major ornamentanations of the Yorubas way before common era. I grew up with these and names like Segilola, Aniyun, Onibonoje, Agbokunyinbonide, Ogbosatafababa, and several other words and names that justify and corroborate this history are still common with some Yoruba families till now.

    1. Very great names. I understand Segilola (beads are wealth/good fortune), Aniyun (we have beads) but I have never come across Onibonoje , Agbokunyinbonide,or Ogbosatafababa. What do they mean?

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