Throughout history, the Yoruba people, one of Nigeria’s largest ethnic groups, have been renowned for their exceptional craftsmanship. Hailing predominantly from the southwestern region of Nigeria, with smaller communities in Benin and northern Togo, the Yoruba population exceeded 20 million by the dawn of the 21st century. They communicate in a language belonging to the Benue-Congo branch of the Niger-Congo language family.
Primarily engaged in agriculture, Yoruba men cultivate staple crops such as yams, maize, and millet, alongside plantains, peanuts, beans, and peas. Cocoa serves as a significant cash crop. Additionally, many Yoruba individuals pursue trading or craftsmanship. Notably, women wield considerable influence within the intricate market system, with their status often tied to their position in commerce rather than their husbands’ social standing.
Yoruba artisans have long been celebrated for their expertise in various trades, including blacksmithing, weaving, leatherworking, glassmaking, and ivory and wood carving. Particularly noteworthy is their mastery of bronze casting during the 13th and 14th centuries, utilizing the lost-wax method to achieve unparalleled technical excellence in West Africa. Yoruba women also contribute to the community’s craftsmanship through activities such as cotton spinning, basketry, and dyeing.
While the Yoruba people share a common language and cultural heritage, they have historically existed as distinct political entities rather than a unified political force. Believed to have migrated westward from the eastern regions over a millennium ago, they evolved into one of Africa’s most urbanized societies before the colonial era. Establishing numerous kingdoms, each centered around a capital city or town and governed by hereditary kings known as obas, the Yoruba built densely populated urban centers, including Oyo, Ile-Ife, Ilesha, Ibadan, Ilorin, Ijebu-Ode, and Ikere-Ekiti.
The prominence of these kingdoms waned in the late 18th and 19th centuries due to internal conflicts among Yoruba rulers and external invasions by neighboring powers such as the Fon of Dahomey and the Muslim Fulani. While traditional Yoruba monarchies persist, their political influence has diminished significantly.
In traditional Yoruba communities, the oba’s palace serves as the focal point, surrounded by compounds belonging to patrilineal lineages. Although modern structures now often replace these traditional dwellings, fundamental social and political structures persist. Patrilineal descent forms the basis of inheritance and succession, with lineage members sharing common names, taboos, and religious practices. Additionally, voluntary associations such as the egbe (male recreational societies), aro (mutual-aid groups for farmers), and esusu (financial cooperatives) play essential roles in Yoruba society.
Political authority rests with the oba and a council of chiefs, with constituent towns governed by subordinate rulers. The oba holds both secular and religious authority, revered as a sacred figure within Yoruba culture. While many Yoruba individuals have adopted Christianity or Islam, elements of traditional religion endure within the community.