Nigeria’s seacoast in the south, with its mangrove swamps in the Niger Delta, gives way to a band of tropical rainforest and then savanna and drier Sahel grasslands in the north. Along with the landscape, the climate varies: from wet and tropical along the coast to more arid conditions in the Sahel, where a three- to four-month rainy season is followed by hot, dry temperatures. Modern-day Nigeria’s northern area once encompassed the southern end of trans-Saharan trade routes, where salt, cloth and other goods were brought across the desert to trade for gold, ivory, slaves, kola nuts and other items from the south.
Throughout West Africa, Muslim traders brought Islam as well as goods with them across the Sahara, and the religion was adopted by some in Nigeria’s northern Sahel and savanna regions by at least the 9th century. Islam made its way to the south during the reign of Mali emperor Mansa Musa, if not before. Christianity came later, with European traders who interacted with groups in the south. Religious preferences still maintain this north-south divide, with Islam predominating in the north among the Fulani and Hausa, and Christianity in the south. Today, Nigeria is about 50% Muslim and 40% Christian, with about 10% embracing traditional or indigenous beliefs.
Kingdoms of the past
The oldest human remains found in Nigeria have been dated to 9000 B.C., though the region was likely inhabited before then. There is evidence of ironworking from around 600 B.C. The earliest known Iron Age civilization in Nigeria is the Nok, who lived in northern and central Nigeria between about 1000 B.C. and 300 A.D. They are known for their life-sized terracotta statues. Following the Nok, large kingdoms and smaller, village-based groups established themselves in the area over the next millennia.
One of the largest ethnic groups in Nigeria today, the Yoruba trace their roots back to the city of Ile-Ife in southwestern Nigeria. The city came to prominence as a center of trade in the 12th century. Like the Nok before them, the Yoruba of this period were sculptors, creating works in terracotta, iron and bronze. The city was also known for its courtyards paved in shards of pottery. Unlike Ile-Ife, the Yoruba kingdom of Oyo maintained an army and established a kingdom that dominated western Nigeria during the 17th and early 18th centuries.
To the south, the Edo people established the Kingdom of Benin, which expanded from a magnificent city into a powerful empire during the 15th century. When Portuguese traders first visited the city, they were impressed by its size and splendor, and Benin sent an ambassador to Lisbon in the early 16th century. Benin is known for its carvings and its “bronzes” (which are actually brass).
In the north, on the edge of the Sahel, the Hausa established states that thrived on trans-Saharan trade, especially after the collapse of the Mali and Songhai Empires, when trade moved farther east. The Hausa states adopted Islam, establishing madrassas and building beautiful mosques—while also warring against one another. The Hausa states were incorporated into the Sokoto Caliphate during a jihad led by the Fulani people in the early 19th century.
The slave trade
Slaves had always been part of West African trade across the Sahara, but gold was the chief commodity that built the great empires of Ghana, Mali and Songhai. This changed once Portuguese traders began plying West Africa’s coasts in the late 15th century. Early Portuguese traders actually bought slaves from the Nigerian coast to sell to the Akan people along the Gold Coast (modern-day Ghana). After the Europeans began using Africa as a source of slaves for the sugar plantations in the New World, the transatlantic market grew exponentially. On Nigeria’s southern coast, slave traders often contracted with local kings or chiefs to provide slaves, with the kingdom of Oyo and the Aro Confederacy, an Igbo group, becoming two major suppliers. Great Britain abolished slavery in 1807, but a profitable trade continued well into the 19th century, with traders running British blockades off Nigeria. Some estimates put the number of slaves sent to the Americas from Nigeria at 3.5 million.