There are various sources of history. For long, written sources dominated the scene because they were erroneously considered the only genuine sources. This was the case up to the 1950s, but over the years, historians have come to recognise and accept the validity of oral and other sources of Nigerian history.
Oral tradition, or oral lore, is a form of human communication wherein knowledge, art, ideas and cultural material is received, preserved and transmitted orally from one generation to another. The transmission is through speech or song and may include folktales, ballads, chants, prose or verses.
Oral traditions and oral sources are basic in the reconstruction of Nigerian history. They are also the most abundant sources and they exist in every part of the country. They are important, in varying degrees, for all aspects of the periods of the Nigerian history. They therefore, constitute the main body of Nigerian historical data. Although they have increasingly become popular and are being used extensively, they have not yet been used to their full capacity, partly due to needs of funds for fieldwork and closely related to this is the fact that many Nigerian historians find it easier to utilize written sources.
Like all sources of history, oral traditions have their shortcomings. First and foremost is the problem of human memory; the tendency to forget. The more distant the occurrence of events in the past, the more difficult they are to recall. Oral traditions are easily open to exaggeration and distortions.
Written sources are derived from all official and legal documents, diaries, letters, newspapers, industrial and commercial records, inscriptions on stones, pottery, bones, metal, maps and diagrams.
In Nigeria, three types of written sources can be identified. There is the nsibidi system of written communication which was used among the Ibibio. It has also been suggested that writing existed among the Nupe, Edo and in the Aro area of south-eastern Nigeria. The traditional system of writing has not been used by Nigerian historians largely because most of it was restricted to single groups, the secret society within groups or produced on perishable objects like wood, bark, calabash and ivory. Such writing was also produced on walls of shrines, painted on human skin, etc. These sources were destroyed through local wars and by the penetration of Islam and Christianity.
The penetration of the Nigeria area, notably Borno and Hausaland, by Islam resulted in the introduction of the Arabic script. This started from about the 10th century AD. By the 16th century, scholars had emerged and produced some historical works. The practice of writing in Arabic reached its peak during, and after the, 19th century jihad of Uthman dan fodio. His brother, Abdullahi, his son, Muhammed Bello, and other scholars produced large numbers of works which have proved very useful in the writing of Nigerian history.
This consists of the relics of material culture created or used by man; relics of material cultures: artefacts of all sorts, including building remains and evidence of archaic industrial processes. Some of the objects form part of the natural environment, for example, impressions made on the surfaces of rocks, rock slides, rock shelters, cave paintings or sculptures on stones or rocks. They also include biological materials – skeletal remains, fossils, desiccated vegetable remains, seeds of plants, etc. These are very important for social history.
Other materials include: living places, bones of domesticated animals, datable deposits in which pottery, grind-stones and human burials have been found. In every type of environment, past populations succeeded in leaving evidence of their life at the sites where they had lived. The study and interpretation of these remains can tell us about the past, in terms, for instance, of early human settlements, domestication of plants and animals, the beginning of agriculture, trading activities, relationships between different communities and social stratifications in any given society.
Archaeological discoveries and excavations have taken place all over Nigeria. These excavation sites include Kursakata, Daima and Shilma in Borno; Birnin Kudu in Kano; Kaura Namoda in Sokoto; the Nok culture area in Plateau and Kaduna; Iwo Eleru, Ilesa and Ife in Oyo; Igbo Ukwu in Anambra and Ewoama in the Rivers states. Through the study of objects found in these places, a lot has come to light about the Nigerian past, dating back, in some places, to about three thousand years.
Closely related to archaeology are sources obtained from the environment. Topographical, geomorphological, climatological and palaeoclimatological data could provide useful historical information. All materials relating to the physical environment of human activity should be used. Wide range of materials here – from reconstruction of conditions of the last pluvial period and the desiccation of the sahara, to the 19th century description of the countries by European travellers, to the 20th century geographical surveys – could prove to be very useful.
This category of sources embraces a wide range of data that is embedded in the life, customs, beliefs and various practices of communities. It includes institutions of all kinds: cultural, political, social and economic, contained within the activities of different Nigerian communities that can assist the historian in his reconstruction of the past. Ethnographic materials, compiled by colonial anthropologists and administrators during the colonial period, could be found in major libraries, research centres and National Archives.
These include materials derived from the study of the meaning of words, for example, names of places. They also include materials from which inferences relating to chronology may be made, e.g. materials derived from the study of archaic obsolete, or new words and usages, or foreign words. For instance, the comparison of religious vocabulary in Kano, Hausa and Gwandara may indicate that Gwandara left Kano before the 16th century.
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