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Nigeria before the colonial era: 5 facts

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Nigeria is a nation with profound roots that date back thousands of years, as well as a lively history and rich cultural legacy. Nigeria has a rich history of complex trading networks, several kingdoms, and thriving civilizations prior to the arrival of British colonialists. Nigerians have made incredible strides in art, trade, and governance throughout this time in the country’s history, demonstrating their inventiveness and tenacity. These are 10 facts about Nigeria prior to the British invasion , which helps to understand the vibrant communities and diverse cultural environments that existed there. The pre-colonial history of Nigeria is a monument to the nation’s long legacy and the enduring spirit of its people, with tales of mighty kingdoms, ancient civilizations, and complicated trading lines.

1. Ancient Civilizations

Nigeria’s ancient history dates back thousands of years, providing a rich history of cultural development and human habitation. There is evidence that the area that is now Nigeria was populated as early as the Paleolithic period, as evidenced by the discovery of stone tools and other artifacts at several archeological sites that date to approximately 9000 BC.

As time progressed, Nigeria became home to a diverse array of cultures and civilizations, each leaving its mark on the landscape and shaping the course of history. One of the most notable ancient civilizations to emerge in Nigeria was the Nok culture, which thrived between 1500 BC and 200 AD.

The Nok culture, which flourished in what is now central Nigeria, is well known for its colorful clay sculptures that feature animals, people, and other complex designs. These sculptures, which are notable for their exquisite precision and creative ability, shed important light on the artistic, technological, and social accomplishments of prehistoric Nigerian communities.

Apart from the Nok culture, Nigeria was also the home of other prehistoric societies including the Iwo Eleru culture in the southwest and the Daima culture in the Lake Chad region. The basis for the various cultures that would arise in Nigeria over the ages was laid by these civilizations, who also engaged in trade and commerce and produced sophisticated technology and intricate social systems.

2. Flourishing Trade Routes

A defining feature of pre-colonial Nigeria was its thriving trade routes, which facilitated both cultural and economic contact in the area. Nigeria’s advantageous location in West Africa made it an essential route for trade between the continent’s various regions and beyond.

In Nigeria, the trans-Saharan trade route was one of the most important trading networks. Gold, ivory, salt, textiles, and other commodities could be easily traded along this historic trade route that linked West Africa to North Africa and the Mediterranean region. Through caravan routes across the Sahara Desert, North African trading hubs like Timbuktu and Cairo were connected to Nigerian cities like Zaria, Katsina, and Kano.

Additionally promoting maritime trade with other regions of West Africa and beyond is Nigeria’s vast coastline along the Gulf of Guinea. Cities along the coast, like Lagos, Calabar, and Bonny, were major trading hubs where European and other African traders traded commodities like textiles, spices, palm oil.

In pre-colonial Nigeria, cowrie shells, brass rods, and iron bars were among the several kinds of money. These currencies functioned as exchange rates and trade facilitation tools in local and regional marketplaces. Although trade commodities varied by area, they frequently included animals, textiles, metals, pottery, and agricultural products.

Trade routes promoted engagement and cultural exchange between many ethnic groups and civilizations in addition to the interchange of goods. Through trading networks, people from different backgrounds came into touch and swapped ideas, beliefs, languages, and artistic styles, which enhanced Nigeria’s cultural diversity.

3. Indigenous Religion

Pre-colonial Nigeria was a thriving center for indigenous religions like Igbo spirituality and the Yoruba religion (Ifá). The intricate pantheon of deities, cosmologies, and rituals that defined these belief systems influenced the spiritual and cultural life of their followers.

Ifá practitioners, often referred to as Babalawos or Ifá priests, act as a bridge between people and the Orishas, offering spiritual counseling, divination services, and leading ceremonies in the deities’ honor. A major component of Yoruba religious practice is ifá divination, which provides insights into the past, present, and future. It is commonly carried out with a divination chain called Opele or a divination tray called Opon Ifá.

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Likewise, traditional spirituality is integral to the cultural identity of the Igbo people in southeast Nigeria. The core of Igbo spirituality is the belief in a pantheon of gods, spirits, and ancestors who mediate between the spiritual and material worlds and have an impact on the lives of the living.

In Nigeria, Christianity and Islam have gained ground, but Igbo spirituality and the Yoruba religion have endured, modifying their fundamental practices and beliefs to fit shifting social and cultural environments. They remain a key source of identity, community, and spiritual connection to the divine, impacting the spiritual and cultural life of millions of Nigerians even now.

4. Oral Tradition

Nigerian societies relied on oral tradition to record their histories, mythologies, and cultural practices before writing systems were widely adopted. In order to preserve Nigeria’s cultural past, griots, or oral historians, were essential in transferring knowledge from one generation to the next.

Photo by tomas-anunziata for Pexels

Oral tradition played a major role in the preservation of histories, mythologies, and cultural practices in Nigerian civilizations prior to the widespread adoption of writing systems. Oral storytelling functioned as the main means of transmitting information from one generation to the next in a country rich in various ethnic groups and languages. Nigeria’s cultural past was mostly preserved by the Griots, sometimes referred to as storytellers or oral historians, who were at the center of this culture.

Griots were highly esteemed members of their societies, with an extensive knowledge of the customs, history, and ancestry of their people. They frequently had a family tradition of telling stories, with skills and information passed down from parent to kid to maintain the role’s continuity through the generations.

Griot storytelling was a dynamic and participatory process rather than just a factual recitation. To engross their audience and foster a feeling of shared experience, griots employed gestures, music, language, and vocal modulation. They engaged listeners and promoted a sense of group identity and belonging through call-and-response techniques and audience engagement.

5. Powerful Kingdoms

There were several strong pre-colonial kingdoms in Nigeria, each with distinctive political systems and cultural practices. These included the Oyo Empire, which ruled over most of southwest Nigeria, the Hausa city-states, who were well-known for their thriving trade and colorful Islamic culture, and the Kingdom of Benin, which was well-known for its intricate bronze artworks.

Photo by John McArthur for unsplash

The Kingdom of Benin, the Oyo Empire, and the Hausa city-states were some of Nigeria’s most illustrious pre-colonial dynasties.

The Kingdom of Benin, which was situated in modern-day Edo State, was well-known for its highly developed political structure, exquisite artistic accomplishments, and impressive military might. Under the leadership of the Oba (king), the kingdom peaked between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries. The governmental system of the Benin Empire was extremely centralized, with the Oba controlling a large bureaucracy of chiefs, officials, and craftspeople.

Beautiful artworks made of brass and bronze, including as sculptures, elaborately cast plaques, and royal regalia, are among the Kingdom of Benin’s most enduring traditions. The paintings showcase the kingdom’s exquisite craftsmanship and abundant cultural legacy, frequently portraying religious rituals, historical events, and scenes from the royal court.

The Oyo Empire, which peaked in the 17th and 18th centuries and was based in what is now southwest Nigeria, was one of the biggest and most influential nations in West Africa. The governmental structure of the empire was hierarchical, with the Alaafin (king) at the head of state. The vast lands of the empire were governed by a number of aristocratic titles and councils sitting beneath the Alaafin.

Through its powerful armed forces, vast trading networks, and diplomatic relationships, the Oyo Empire had a significant impact on surrounding areas. It enjoyed the benefit of the profitable trade in commodities like ivory, slaves, and kola nuts, as well as control over important trading routes. The language, customs, and religious practices of the Yoruba people are remnants of the empire and continue to influence their identity.

The Hausa city-states, which are now in northern Nigeria, were a group of autonomous city-states distinguished by their bustling economic hubs, Islamic culture, and urban centers. Like Kano, Katsina, and Zazzau (Zaria), each city-state had its own administrative structure, governing class, and economic niche.

A major hub for trade, the Hausa city-states were part of the trans-Saharan commercial network that allowed the exchange of items including salt, cloth, leather, and slaves. The Hausa city-states were epicenters of Islamic scholarship and culture, with mosques, madrasas, and Islamic law courts functioning as centers of religious and intellectual activity.

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