In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Igbo

  • Introduction
  • Regional Overviews
  • Occasional Papers, Dictionaries, and Language Studies
  • Autobiographies and Biographies
  • The Igbo and Their Neighbors
  • Religion
  • Slavery
  • Oral Histories
  • Political Histories
  • Social Histories
  • Economic Histories
  • Biafran War
  • Literature in English
  • Literature in Igbo

African Studies Igbo
Nwando Achebe
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 August 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0143


Igbo (Ibo) refers to a language and a group of people. Numbering over 30 million, Ndi Igbo or the Igbo people live in autonomous independent communities mainly in Nigeria, Cameroon, Sierra Leone, Equatorial Guinea, and São Tomé. In Nigeria, they are bordered by the Ibibio-, Ijo-, Ekoi-, Igala-, Idoma-, and Nupe-speaking peoples and share linguistic ties with the Bini, Igala, Yoruba, and Idoma. They are not a monolithic group but rather manifest differences in culture, tradition, and dialects. The origin of the Igbo people is largely speculative. Traditions of creation trace their origins to particular ancestral founders, after whom villages generally take their names. They further suggest that there exists a core area of Igboland—Owerri, Orlu, Awka, Okigwe—to which waves of people coming from the north and west migrated and settled starting as early as the 9th century. From this area, Igbos then spread out in all directions. Donald Hartle’s excavation of Nsukka and Ibagwa provides the earliest evidence of a complex, settled agricultural Igbo society with a pottery-making industry of between 4,500 and 6,000 years old. Similar excavations in Igbo Ukwu uncovered hundreds of ritual bronze pots and copper artifacts dating back to 820 CE and revealed an Igbo civilization which had developed a highly sophisticated bronze metal-working and material culture. This Nri area is believed to be the foundation of much of Igbo culture, customs, and religious practices. The first contact between Igbos and Europe occurred in the mid-15th century and was fueled by a trade in human beings. The abolition of the slave trade ushered in a new era of legitimate trade and the subsequent European scramble for, partition of, and colonization of the territory known as Nigeria. British attempts to colonize Igboland, however, met with great resistance. The British introduced a system of indirect rule in which colonial administrators ruled through existing indigenous authorities. The policy, however, assumed that all Nigerian governing systems were hierarchical and centralized. This was not so. Thus, the British attempt to rule indirectly bred divisions and confusion that did not previously exist. The Igbo Women’s War of 1929 highlights the disastrous consequences of imposing an indirect rule on communities that do not have kings. Like most colonies, Nigeria was the creation of imperial draftsmen and thus a country of over 512 ethnic nations with little national consciousness. Six years after Nigeria’s 1960 independence, ethnic tensions broke out in the country and Igbo people attempted to head a succession from Nigeria. Two-and-a-half years later and millions of lives lost from fighting and famine, Biafra was crushed by federal troops and eventually reabsorbed into Nigeria. In the early 21st century, the causes of the Biafran conflict—ethnocentrism and mistrust—are still present realities.

General Overviews

Igbo historiography has a long and distinguished history. Investigators of the Igbo world have focused primarily on the precolonial and colonial periods and have mainly centered on the following areas of historical inquiry: the peopling of Igboland (see Precolonial Igboland), the nature of Igbo interaction with their non-Igbo neighbors (see the Igbo and Their Neighbors), and the Igbo cultural, political, and religious environment (see Social Histories, Political Histories, and Religion). In Igboland, as well as most other colonized entities, the first major body of writing appeared during the colonial period, when government-appointed anthropologists and missionaries like C. K. Meek (see Precolonial Igboland), George T. Basden (see Precolonial Igboland), and Northcote Whitridge Thomas (see Regional Overviews) worked tirelessly to “save” Igbo souls and effectively bring them under British colonial rule. These overviews, written in the somewhat condescending tones of the time, tended to be descriptive, rather than analytical. Their main aim was to document the ways of life of the people, thereby furthering the colonizing and Christianizing missions of colonial governments. The next body of literature on the Igbo to emerge was produced mainly by indigenous scholars, as well as some expatriate wives of Igbo men, who, utilizing oral traditions and archival documentation, attempted to trace the political and social history of the Igbo from its earliest times to the colonial present. Following Nigerian independence in 1960, a spurt of new materials on Igboland emerged. Most were written by Igbo scholars, were nationalist in nature, and would pave the way for later historians to produce more varied and nuanced studies of Igbo people in all of their complexity.

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