Ife-Benin: Two Kingdoms, One Culture

By Ryder, Alan | UNESCO Courier, May 1984 | Go to article overview

Ife-Benin: Two Kingdoms, One Culture


Ryder, Alan, UNESCO Courier


Considerng the central place it occupies in the general history of the Yoruba, we know surprisingly little about the history of Ife. After the comparative wealth of detail attached to the legendary founder of the State, Oduduwa, and his immediate successors, we encounter a very spare and broken narrative in the oral traditions for subsequent ages. The archaeological record had done something to fill the gaps, but this research is in its infancy.

A first phase in the history of the State, opening around the eleventh century, is characterized by a scattered settlement pattern, the widespread use of floors made of potsherds set on edge, a glass-bead industry and a very fine terracotta art which specialized in the production of naturalistic figures, especially human heads. Because of this latter feature, a link has sometimes been posited between the cultures of the Ife and Nok, despite the thousand years which stands between them.

More significant is the very close resemblance which the terracotta art of Ife beas to that discovered in other centres of Yoruba culture. Heads in a style related to that of Ife have been found ar Ikinrun and Ire near Oshogbo, at Idanre near Ikare, and most recently and interestingly at Owo, where a large number of terracotta sculptures have been excavated in a fifteenth-century context.

This wide distribution of the style may indicate the extent of Ife influence, but it may also be that it marks the spread of a cultural trait among the Yoruba associated with religious rites rather than with Ife kingship.

The potsherd floors, which in Ife have often been discovered in association with terracotta figures, are likewise not a unique feature of that city; similar floors have been found at Owo, Ifaki, Ikerin, Ede, Itaji Ekiti, Ikare and much futher afield at Ketu and Dassa Zoume in the Republic of Benin and in the Kabrais district of Togo.

The earliest potsherd floors so far discovared in Ife date to about 1100 AD and the latest bear maize-cob impressions, which means that they cannot be earlier than the sisteenth century. The subsequent disappearance of the floors, and apparently also of the terracotta art, probably reflects some catastrophe which overwhelmed Ife in the sisteenth century.

The twenty-five Ife "bronze" heads (they are in fact made of brass and copper), which bear so striking a stylistic resemblance to the terracottas, may have been made in the years immediately before the disaster, when imports of brass and copper by the Portuguese had made casting metal relatively plentiful. We can at present only surmise the nature of the events which distroyed this culture; conquest by an alien dynasty seems the most likely explanation.

If the above interpretation of Ife history is correct, the dynasty which now reigns there is that which established itself in the sixteenth century, built the palace on its present site and threw up the ealiest of the walls around the central area of the town. Perhaps the new dynasty has preserved some of the political and social institutions of its predecessor, but we cannot assume that the earlier regime resembled the later in its political arrangements any more than it did in its art. Because the modern pattern of installation ceremonies and royal insignia are so similar throughout most of Yorubaland, including Ife, and because these insignia bear little resemblance to those worn by supposedly royal figures in the earlier phase of Ife history, it is reasonable to conclude that modern Yoruba kingship derives from the originally have been formed on the pattern of early Ife.

It is not impossible that the rise and fall of State in the western Sudan in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries had a direct influence on State fromation in the Guinea forest zone. Their appearance and expansion may well help to account for the upheavals which happened about that time in the adjacent southern States. …

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