Nigeria; How Yoruba Art Dazzled the Europeans; Herbert Wendt, a German Science Writer, Said It All: "Modern Ethnologists Have Found the Art of the Yorubas So Astonishingly High in Quality That They Did Not [at First] Ascribe It to a Negro Race." Well, Welcome to an African Civilization Dating Back to 600 AD

Article excerpt

By the 11th century AD, the Yoruba, ruling from the city of Ile Ife, were the leading cultural force in southern Nigeria. Their civilisation has been widely admired by many scholars. Prof Cheikh Anta Diop, for example, wrote that: "It is impossible to describe here all the riches of the civilisation of Ife. Herbert Wendt, a German science writer, was much more flattering:

  "Modern ethnologists," Wendt wrote, "have found the art of the
Yorubas so astonishingly high in quality that they did not [at first]
ascribe it to a Negro race ... It was Leo Frobenius who first ranked the
culture of the Yorubas with that of the Mediterranean ... The Yoruba
Empire consisted of city states similar to those of ancient Greece.
Some of these states had 150,000 or 250,000 inhabitants. Art objects
of the highest quality were found in their ruins--glazed urns, tiles
with pictures of animals and gods on them, bronze implements, gigantic
granite figures. The Yorubas introduced the cultivation of yams, the
preparation of cheese and the breeding of horses into West Africa.
  "They had outstanding artists in metal, gold-casters, cotton-weavers,
wood-carvers and potters. Their professions formed themselves into
guilds with their own laws, their children were brought up in
educational camps, their public affairs were directed by a courtly
aristocracy and an exuberantly expanding bureaucracy."

Prof Leo Frobenius, the German scholar, was the pioneering authority on the Yoruba Civilisation. When he first encountered this culture in the early 20th century, he felt he had discovered remnants of the lost Greek civilisation of Atlantis. In addition, Frobenius identified Olukun, the Yoruba sea god, with Poseidon, the ancient Greek deity.

While this analysis is all clearly in error, another European scholar, Peter Garlake, explains why Frobenius could be forgiven for making these blunders: "The calm repose and realism of the [Yoruba] sculptures were reminiscent of Classical Greece. The pantheon of Yoruba gods, their attributes, their vivid lives and complex responsibilities echoed Mount Olympus. The architecture of the houses and palaces, where rooms opened off enclosed courtyards, open to the sky, resembled the impluvia of early Mediterranean, particularly Etruscan [ie, Roman] buildings. The Yoruba concept of the universe, their educational system, the organisation of their society and their statecraft supported a Greek connection."


Ile-Ife was the ancient capital city of the Yorubas. Archaeological excavations showed that the site was inhabited by 600 AD. Among the first residents were farmers who cultivated yams and oil palms. "It was also clear," wrote the Africanists Roland Oliver and Brian Fagan in their book, Africa in the Iron Age, "that from the earliest times Ife had an important iron industry, and also that it engaged in the manufacture of glass. …


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