Igbo names and spellings for various settlements
Abakaliki is Abankaleke; Afikpo is Ehugbo; Awgu is Ogu; Awka is Oka; Bonny is Ubani; Enugu is Enugwu; Ibusa is Igbuzö; Igrita is Igwuruta; Oguta is Ugwuta; Onitsha is Onicha; Owerri is Owere; Oyigbo is Obigbo... any more will be added.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

The Wet Sahara: A Practical Approach to the Question of the ‘Origin of the Igbo people?’

Image: Ukpuru, referencing The Sahara Megalakes Project, King's College London.

[This is a short theory.]

Thousands of years ago, the Sahara was green with life and sported several lakes, Lake Chad was several times its size, and the Sahara was well populated as shown by petroglyphs (rock art) in the area dating from around the time of the fertile Sahara. The greening (and drying) of the Sahara is periodic, occurring every couple of thousand years (It'll be green again).

In southern Nigeria you have several traditions of people migrating from the north to civilise the south, mainly through agriculture as is explicitly detailed in the story of Eri among the Umueri-Umunri-Igbo. Speculatively, these traditions in southern Nigeria could be very old and recycled stories relating to the end of the last greening of the Sahara, otherwise known as the Neolithic Subpluvial. The finds at Nok, for instance, could possibly point to one of the last civilisations from that period when the Sahara desert, once lush with green, continued to dry out. With this development, people living in the then green Sahara, particularly people who were agriculturalists, would have clung onto fertile land where they could for their sustenance. Major civilisations around the world are known to have started near the banks of rivers, in Nigeria this is no exception where there are several cultures which sprang from near the banks of the Niger and Benue and other rivers. With the theory of expansion from the retreating green Sahara, these rivers would have served as crucial life-lines to the migrants searching for stable sources of water and reliable land.

Manda Guéli Cave in the Ennedi Mountains, northeastern Chad. Photo: David Stanley.

The story of ancient legendary primogenitors usually entails a patriarch who migrated specifically from the north of the present homelands, and was said to have brought civilisation, specifically agriculture, and a political structure. The story usually goes that the man and his entourage met aboriginal people in the area who either took this founder as a leader and were incorporated into the new society or were conquered and sometimes expelled from the area.

One such story is that of Eri, the father and founder of the culture of the Umueri-Umunri-Igbo today in Anambra State, Nigeria. In short, Eri is said to have travelled from someplace north before reaching the Anambra area and settling with his children. Any group of people in the areas that are now desert would cling on to and follow the course of rivers as their lands became arid, which would explain the story of Eri coming to the confluence of the Omambala (Anambra) and Niger. Eri is said to have been taught agriculture from Chi, the four primordial spirits, Eke, Oye, Afo, Nkwo, gave him the knowledge of divination and the market (trading).

The other famous founding father is Oduduwa in the Yoruba-Benin story, who in the general story migrated from a northeast direction with religion and civilisation, the connection to the northeast may be linked to the Niger. The origin of Oduduwa is contested, possibly because the Oduduwa story of founding and civilising may be partly recycled from a more ancient story in the area; both the Yoruba and Benin are far older as a people than even the earliest time Oduduwa could have founded a dynasty. The story around Oduduwa also includes meeting a group of people already living in the area who were expelled, and some coming together to form a society.

The Oduduwa story also refers to the conquered or acculturated aboriginal people as either the Igbo or Ugbo, although the tradition claims that these people are unrelated to the present-day Igbo people (and that’s not being contested here), this word may have a particular meaning and words related to it may be significant to understanding the history of the area. The word comes up in a consistent and related manner in several southern Nigerian languages, for instance, igbo and ugbo alternatively mean hinterland, forest, farm, an ancient people or slave in several languages; ugboko is forest in Igbo, ugbo is farm, igbo is bush in Yoruba; even more speculation says the name 'Igbo' refers to hinterland farmers, as opposed to Oru, an ancient riverine people who are now mostly considered Igbo. Igbo is also used to refer to outsiders by some communities considered to be Igbo today, sometimes derogatorily.

The Igbo, Edo, Yoruba, Fon, and Ewe probably come from a similar migration that met a similar set of aboriginal communities, the igbo or ugbo words may be cognates that originally meant forest in these migrant's languages, this may have been extended to aboriginal people in the hinterland. Perhaps the make up of these societies can be likened to having a similar mother and father, the question is whether it’s the same father and different mother, or the same mother and different father; the Igbo/Ugbo, referring to the speculated aboriginal people, may represent the same mother who is the origin of the many cultural links, and specifically linguistic links, between these populations, and the migrating fathers provide some more remote cultural links from the supposed time in the wet Sahara.

The DNA tests done on Ancient Egyptian mummies such as that of Ramses III showing him to have a strong connection to populations in West Africa, in this theory, would come from the intermingling of populations in the Sahara before it was dried out leading to people fleeing to more reliable water sources. In this theory, the mass migrations from the encroaching desert could have sparked the Bantu migration which is estimated to have likely started around the central eastern part of present day Nigeria which is quite near the edge of the Sahara and between the forest and semi arid zones of West Africa. The population pressure from the migrations, with the supposition that the populations in the Sahara would have had agriculture on their side which made them look for fertile land, may have increased the competition for resources in the area leading to a push of migrants hunting for resources towards the south away from the competition, this may be related to the dense population of the area now known as Nigeria.

The area around Igboland is within the reach of the last bit of the African equatorial forest belt from Central Arfica, from the DNA evidence supposedly showing small amounts of Khoi-San-like ancestry in some Igbo people, it could be that this area shielded a very ancient population for a very long time before the coming of agriculturalists. The Igbo people are said to have migrated from two main regions, one around today's Anambra, and one in Imo, the two migrations formed what is sometimes termed the northern and southern Igbo. The southern Igbo are traced mostly to the Isu culture, while the northern Igbo are traced to the Nri-Ọka area. The Igbo to the west of the Niger migrated from both the northern and the southern Igbo. The high population density in Igboland, as well as the technical innovations found in the area such as with the iron finds at Lejja, Enugu State dating to roughly 2000 BC, may support the idea that this area was a ‘funnel’ made by the Niger and Cross River which drew in high competition from the Sahara as Robert D. Jackson supposes (1975). The intense competition and waves of migrants may also explain the supposed susceptibility of Igbo people to change and new ideas.

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