The Yoruba cover an area of about 70,000 sq. miles between the two rivers, Niger in the East and Mono in the West. They occupy land between latitude 60 and 90 North, and longitude 20 3’ and 60 30’ East.
They constitute one of the largest homogeneous groups in Africa. Popularly referred to as ‘Anago’ and ‘Olukumi’ in the extant past, the Yoruba speak language that is mutually intelligible with various dialects. The geography of the area is characterized by variation of climate and topography. The weather of the area varies from raining season to dry season.
The landscape of the Yorubaland is dotted with rivers which flow in the North-south direction, as well as forests and hills which serve as bulwark against the infiltration of the interior by the external aggressors. They were predominantly agriculturists and hunters. The Yoruba were also famous for their local industries and artistic work, particularly bronze and brass casting.
The origin of the Yoruba is shrouded in mystery. Perhaps, no aspect of the Yoruba history is more controversial or ambiguous than their origin as there are many versions of oral traditions dedicated to this. Two versions are particularly popular.
The first version collected by Captain Clapperton from Sultan Bello in the 1820’s speaks of the migration of the Yoruba into their present habitat from outside. This version was later popularized by Rev. Samuel Johnson and the first crops of Nigerian historians. According to this version, the Yoruba migrated from the North-Eastern part of Africa which has been variously interpreted as Arabia, Egypt, Yemen and Meroe.
This group of immigrants was said to have been led by Oduduwa who utilized his superior force to overwhelm the autochthonous people that met in the area and consequently established a new dynasty.
The second version of the tradition was derived from the Yoruba mythology.
This tradition speaks of the ‘the beginning of time’ probably the pluvial period when Eledumare (Supreme Being) sent messengers (immortals) to the surface of the earth to create the world. At the head of this party was Obatala.
In their possession were pieces of iron, lump of sand and a chicken with which they were to create the world. While Obatala in his drunkenness (for he was alleged to have taken palm wine on the way) lost his paraphernalia of leadership, Oduduwa took the opportunity to lead the party on.
Before their landing, the pieces of iron and lump of sand were set down, and chicken was placed to spread the sand. Thus began the creation of the world from Ile-Ife where the immortals landed. The reference to the name Oduduwa Afewonro that is “Oduduwa, the man who descended through chain” which local historians hold tenaciously to even in contemporary times could not be divorced from the story of creation beginning from Ile-Ife.
Some pertinent questions arise here: where did the Oduduwa party land when they arrived at a place later known as Ile-Ife as everywhere was reportedly filled with water? From where did Obatala get the palm wine that he drank? Significantly however, the triumph of the Oduduwa group over the Obatala group which is re-enacted in a mock battle during the celebration of Edi festival is an eloquent testimony to the conquering influence of the Oduduwa group, an influence that is still pervasive till the modern time.
It would appear that the first version of the oral tradition was invented. In the first instance, what has been variously called ‘East’ may not be farther than the Niger-Benue Confluence of Nigeria. This became evident from the comparison of the archaeological remains of Ife and Nok culture.
The style of the Nok terracotta of Jos-Plateau which belonged to the second half of two millennium ago is strikingly similar to that of Ile-Ife.
Also, a number of large bronze figures (Tsoede’s bronzes) kept at Jebba, Tedda and Jinaga villages resemble those of Ile-Ife.
These Tsoede’s bronzes were probably the craft work of the Yoruba who probably occupied the region before they were displaced from the region presumably, the Nupe. It might also have been that these bronzes reached the area through long-distance trade. But the claim of Arabian or Egyptian origin is not more than an attempt to associate the Yoruba with a more popular civilization of the Near East as done by the Kanuri to Ibn Yazan or the Igbo to the Jews.
The second version of oral tradition represents an attempt to establish the divine origin of the Yoruba people. This is not peculiar to the Yoruba nation alone as other African nations have their own traditions of either falling from the sky or erupting from the ground. Nevertheless, the two versions of oral tradition are not irreconcilable. Put together therefore, the two oral traditions have identified the personality of Oduduwa as the father of the Yoruba nation.
The arrival of Oduduwa in Ile-Ife can be interpreted as the period of revolution in the Yoruba history. It would also appear that the advent of Oduduwa represented the emergence of a new dynasty in Ile-Ife and the unification of the autochthonous peoples who hitherto were scattered and non-unified.
It can therefore be concluded that the coming of Oduduwa rather than being seen as the beginning of a race can be interpreted as epochal revolution which symbolized the beginning of the consciousness of the Yoruba as a people.