Although not much is known about the early societies that existed prior to the 12th century, various Nigerian groups explain their origins through legends usually involving migration, intermarriage and acculturation. The legends highlight the importance of such interchanges in the cultural, economic, and political development of many current Nigerian societies
Archaeological research conducted by Thurstan Shaw and Steve Daniels, has shown evidence of people already living in southwestern Nigeria (specifically Iwo-Eleru) as early as 11,000 BC and perhaps earlier in southeast at Ugwuelle-Uturu (Okigwe). However, Iwo-Eleru is the site of the earliest known example of the 13,000 year-old human fossil human found anywhere in West Africa.
Early societies in the south were hunters and gathers which then gave way to subsistence farming of yam and oil palm in comparison to the north whose main crops were cereals. The switch to agriculture resulted from the importation of stone axe heads from the north, which the Yoruba descendants of Neolithic (latter part of the Stone Age) called “thunderbolts”, hurled to earth by the gods.
The transition from Neolithic times to the Iron Age apparently was achieved indigenously without intermediate bronze production.The oldest evidence of metalwork in Sub-Saharan Africa date back to 600 BC based on evidence of iron melting furnaces at Taruga archeological site. The earliest identified use of iron in Nigeria comes from the Nok culture in north east Jos Plateau which thrived approximately between 900 BC and 200 AD. Though there is lack of information from the first millennium AD following the Nok ascendancy, the 2nd millennium shows evidence of active trade between North Africa and sub-Sahara through the savanna, whose people acted as intermediaries in exchanges of various goods.
Through these time periods, kingdoms and empires rose and fell. The powerful West African kingdoms and empires were:
- The Edo-Benin Empire, Igbo kingdom of Onitsha,
- The Oyo Empire, State of Ife
- Kanem-Borno, Hausa States & the Sokoto kingdom
- The Islamic Songhai Empire
To give a rich insight into the history of these pre-colonial empires, each one will be examined fully.