African Cultures – Yoruba

The Yoruba are a group of people living in modern-day Nigeria, Togo and Benin in West Africa. They are known for, amongst other things, their magnificent sculpture work. They are one of the largest ethnic groups of the area, making up more than one-fifth of the population of Nigeria alone. In fact, Nigeria has the greatest concentration of Yoruba people than any other country. Most of these speak Yoruba as a language too. Interestingly, in addition to Africa, there are also large communities of Yoruba immigrants in the United States of America and the United Kingdom.

Africa has been inhabited for millennia, according to archaeological and historical remnants. The people that occupied this part of West Africa were not always called the Yoruba, but had a common language and ethnicity. The Yoruba are known for forming large city settlements instead of smaller village-like establishments.

Image of Egungun masquerade dance garment in the permanent collection of The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis
Egungun masquerade dance garment in the permanent collection of The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis

The Yoruba culture is based largely on the more than 400 gods in which these people believe. In addition to affecting their worship and praise, these gods are also an important subject for their art. Such art includes ceramic work, beading, metal work, and the making of traditional face masks. The multitude of their gods makes for great variety in their artwork. Such art dates back hundreds of years; artefacts of terra cotta sculptures have been found that date back to the 12th century.

In terms of the Yoruba literature, there are six main genres that still survive to this day:

1. Hunters’ chants (ijala)
2. Masquerade chants (iwi egungun)
3. Social chants (rara)
4. Praise chants for the god of thunder (sango-pipe)
5. Divination poetry (ifa)
6. Children’s poetry

Poetry and tales were only conveyed orally until the early part of the 19th century since there was no official written or read language structure until then. At this time, missionaries began to collect such stories and produce a written form of the language that they heard. This was an enormous step forward for the writers and poets of the time, as they were now able to record their work on paper, publish it in local newspapers and share it with others on a far wider scale. By the end of the 20th century, over 120 novels had been published in the Yoruba language.

In terms of theatrical performance, there are two main types: 1) travelling theatre and 2) literary drama. Travelling theatre is performed in front of a live audience and is not scripted, while literary drama is published, and seldom performed.

The naming of babies makes up an enormously significant part of the Yoruba culture. Yorubas believe, as do many other African cultures, that the baby will live to fulfil the meaning of the name that it is given. Therefore, what they name their child will shape the personality, success and future of that person. When naming a newborn infant, the parents must consider the history of his or her relatives. The name is considered to be like a spirit; a similar concept to the western idea of a guardian angel. A naming ceremony is conducted, usually by the oldest member of the family. At this celebration, other relatives have the opportunity to add to the baby’s official name(s). This has resulted in Yoruba people with more than 10 or 12 official names. Pet names are also important for each child, and are generally chosen to reflect one’s hope for the child’s future.

The courting process (with the aim of marriage) often involves the young man and his friends playing pranks on the chosen girl. He will send love letters to her and, once she has indicated that she reciprocates his feelings, his parents will need to discuss the matter with her parents. A bride price is required before the wedding can take place. Marriage in this community involves the union of two families, not only two individuals. Traditionally, a woman must remain a virgin until her wedding day in order not to bring shame upon her family.

Like almost every other religion, the Yoruba believe that the soul continues to live after death; thus not really dying at all. Their religion is referred to as Aborisha or Orisha-Ifa. The entire purpose of a devout Yoruba person’s life is to live in such a way that promotes a good life, while delivering the message of the Creator to others to do the same. If this has been done, the Yoruba believe that their afterlife will be a pleasant one (equivalent to the Christian concept of a life in heaven). Another prominent belief is that of ancestors, who are believed to be watching over their living relatives on earth. Instead of worshipping such ancestors, though, the Yoruba merely venerate, remember and respect them.

Effects Of Climatic And Environmental Changes On Ancient African Civilisations

Hundreds of thousands of years ago, the entire planet earth looked very different to what modern man experiences today. Continents were not yet divided, and the vegetation and animals were different. Significantly, the climate was also vastly different to what it is today. Climate plays an integral role in determining the plants and animal that live in a certain areas, as well as how habitable a place is for human beings.

In fact, even the theory of the evolution of man was dependent largely on the climatic influences on our ancient ancestors. It is hypothesised that the ancient versions of man were forced to walk upright, lose body hair and develop their coordination for survival in a changing environment. New skills also needed to be learned as farming techniques and living habits had to be adapted.

Ancient Africa experienced major vacillations between mega-droughts and Ice Ages, although these fluctuations occurred over thousands and thousands of years. As humans continued to develop and evolve through these phases, they needed to make major adaptations, not only to their ways of life, but also to their personal body structure. Prior to 135 000 years ago, the whole of Africa was lush and fertile, with a tropical climate. Then, the most intense mega-drought ever to occur hit the continent in the period referred to as the early part of the Late Pleistocene epoch. This is believed to have led to the migration of most of our human ancestors into other areas that were more habitable and fertile. Lake Malawi has been used by scientists as a rain gauge to ascertain water levels in ancient times. Research has shown that, during this mega-drought, the lake’s level dropped at least 1968 feet, or 600 metres! Evolutionists claim that this severe lack of water not only pushed ancient man from the area, it also forced aquatic animals (such as fish) to develop the facilities to be able to survive on dry land, thus evolving into land animals.

As people flocked out of the continent, only a very small proportion of this specific generation remained. Humankind as we know it is widely believed to have come from these few remaining on the continent, who evolved significantly and in response to the climatic changes.

These conditions continued until about 70 000 years ago, when the climate was again characterised by wetter conditions. These led to the growth and renewal of fresh vegetation, as well as an increased water supply to the region. More people were in the area during this time of abundance, and the population grew. This increase in numbers eventually led to migrations due to space limitations and the ownership of land.

Then, about 20 000 years ago, an Ice Age overcame the entire earth. This meant that the planet underwent a long-term period of cold temperatures over most of its surface. In places like North America and Eurasia, giant ice sheets covered enormous proportions of the land, making it impossible to farm and, sometimes, even live in these areas. This final Ice Age lasted for about 9 500 years. It forced most of the populations to migrate to the highlands, where they would be relatively protected from the ice sheets. Again, these civilisations had to adapt their farming methods, and change their diet, social habits, clothing and migratory patterns. This forced an evolution to a certain extent. Body hair was necessary to keep people warm, their skin lightened due to a lack of the harsh rays of the sun that they experienced during the mega-droughts, etc…

When this Ice Age came to an end 10 500 years ago, areas like the Sahara were left fertile and healthy. This made it and the other areas like it the ideal spots in which to settle as ancient man began to descend from the highlands. Animals and plants thrived in this environment, which made it very desirable in the eyes of mankind. The abundance of food, water and sunshine again changed the habits and physical structures of our earliest forefathers.

These conditions lasted for some time, but the Sahara in particular continued to experience fluctuations between humid and dry conditions. These eventually left the entire area unable to yield crops or sustain life for any extended period of time. Today, it remains a large stretch of desert. Then, approximately 2500 years ago, the group of people who had made their home in the Sahara began to follow the direction of the Nile River, which held promise of a rich water supply. The arid conditions of the Sahara and its surrounds continue to the present day.

Africa has, since prehistoric times, proven to be a place of fascination, life and evolution. Changes in the climate were often dramatic, and these were, to a great extent, responsible for determining the ancient civilisations that inhabited this vast continent. It is no wonder that many researchers and scientists maintain that Africa is the Cradle of Mankind, and research continues to yield fascinating evidence of this theory.