Posted by: Matthew Davies | May 18, 2015

Report on the third field workshop, Tiv Nigeria 9th to 17th January 2015

Professor Caleb Adebayo Folorunso

Dr Emuobosa Orijemie

Day One

On arrival from Lagos and Ibadan through Abuja and from Zaria; we settled down in our Guest house at Katsina-Ala. The field workshop was led by Professor Caleb Adebayo Folorunso and Dr Emuobosa Orijemie from the University of Ibadan. The team from Ahmadu Bello University (ABU) Zaria included Dr Zacharys Anger Gundu, Dr Jonathan Ndera and Mr. Richard Chia from the Department of Archaeology. Mr. Sampercy Ingyoroko, a staff of the Benue State Council for Arts and Culture, Makurdi later joined the team. These researchers being Tiv themselves and having done archaeological and ethnoarchaeological studies in the Benue Valley have a good knowledge of the Tiv culture. Participating guests included Dr Freda M’Mbogori from the National Museums of Kenya, Mr Timothy Kipkeu Kiprutto from the British Institute in Eastern Africa and Marakwet Research Station, Dr Alex Schoeman and Miss Lauren Solomon from the University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg and Dr Matthew Davies from the University of Cambridge. In the evening of the arrival day, there was dinner where we had some briefings on what the field work was all about and what we would be doing in the next couple of days.


The major discussion on the first day centred on The Tiv of Central Nigeria specifically what constitutes Tiv Culture as the context for Tiv farming? This question was looked at from two perspectives namely (a) material and (b) non-material culture of the Tiv. The Tiv hold their land and farm produce in very high esteem hence conflicts sometimes arise from any factor that border on these two aspects. The Tiv have a saying that “land is life”. Conflicts usually arise due to infringements on two levels (a) intra-ethnic conflicts which are usually resolved amicably and (b) inter-ethnic conflicts especially with the Fulani herdsmen whose cattle devour crops and farmlands which the Tiv usually do not take kindly to. However, Fulani cattle manure may add to the fertility of cultivated soils creating an interesting tension. This situation is further compounded by pressure on available farming land as well as declining land fertility. These problems are caused by increased population and decline in the fallow system of farming. In the past, several expanses of land were available for fallowing, allowing cultivated field to rejuvenate and regain their fertility. Increased population now makes this practice very rare as more and more Tiv, unlike in the past, settle on their farmlands to prevent such lands from being “colonised”. During the cultivation period, the males clear the fields which are carefully distributed to male members of the family. The men also prepare the lands to suit the plants to be cultivated while the women cultivate and maintain granaries. Another key aspect of the Tiv is the Mbatsav, a traditional belief system used for settling disputes among the Tiv.

Day Two

Field work and discussions: Tiv Farming Traditions

The team visited Ushongo town, a major Tiv settlement in the Benue Valley. A visit was paid to the Ter Ushongo, the traditional ruler to obtain his consent and permission to visit archaeological sites and conduct oral interviews with farmers. There are two significant rock shelters located on Tse Dura rock outcrop, and an open air settlement remains on the Ushongo rock outcrop that form part of the archaeological landscape of the Tiv. The team on reaching Ushongo were talked through farming traditions of the Tiv by Messers Godwin Biem and Hile Biem, both sons of the Ter Gba family who were our hosts. The Tiv culture recognises the eldest male as the “owner” of the family land hence the responsibility of caring for and distributing the lands for cultivation lies with him. A plot of land is usually cultivated by a man’s family or by paid labour. Mixed cropping is practised; the major crops being yams and some vegetables (okra, melon and spinach) during the rainy season, and cassava and other hardy vegetable during the dry season.

The Tiv major food crop is yam which is given a lot of care during cultivation. They recognise over twenty species of yams among which are water (Agbo) and native (Tameniyo) yams. Men usually cultivate yam farms while the women weed at specific periods; yam heaps are believed to provide the yam seedlings with enough soils, protect them from excessive sunlight and water. Weeds are recognised as useful because they protect the soils, prevent erosion and add nutrients to the soils. Herbicides have been introduced alongside fertilisers; they kill weeds, but soften soils which are susceptible to leaching. Furthermore, some farmers misuse herbicides due to lack of understanding of dosage and direction of use as prescribed in the labels. There has been a recent introduction by the government of fertilizers and orchards and what was termed “improved varieties of crops” all of which is ripe for further study. This government intervention was considered a failure as the service rendered by the Benue Agricultural Development Authority (BENADA) Agricultural Extension workers did not take into consideration salient issues such as (a) pre-interaction process with the farmers and (b) appreciation of the socio-economic issues surrounding Tiv farming. Hence they adopted agricultural strategies alien to Tiv environment and ineffective for their farming systems. The Tiv farmers noticed, with continuous use of inorganic fertilisers (NPK [15:15:15] and Urea), drier soils accompanied by reduced water-retaining ability, over-use and under-use of fertilisers in right proportions, cropping, poor yields and neglect of fallow system. The orchards provide additional source of revenue but also compete with traditional crops for scarce farmlands. Other concerns surrounding introduction of new seed breeds, fertilisers and herbicides included “appearance” of stubborn weeds hitherto not found in Tiv land.

Ushongo Archaeology and Land Distribution

On Day 2 the team were also led up to the two rock shelters in Tse Dura; the rock shelters though excavated still contained abundant and diverse pottery with unique decorations scattered on the floor of the shelters. Archaeological records from several open air sites on rock outcrops in the Benue Valley indicate a 15th-16th century period of occupation although older dates (4th century BC) have been recorded in the Late Stone Age (LSA) levels in the rock shelters. The occupation model of the area is that the rock shelters were occupied first but the identity of these earliest peoples is not yet known with certainty. Subsequently a group (probably the Tiv) moved into the valleys but were forced up onto the rock outcrops during the 15th-16th centuries. What could have been responsible for this almost contemporaneous migration up onto the rock outcrops? This hilltop settlement pattern might have followed houses being located on the basis of patrilineal descent as recorded in the ethnographic present. The compact nature of the distribution of huts on the rock outcrops further indicates attempts by the people to effectively utilise all available spaces and convert and manage otherwise unsuitable spaces for building. Suggested causes of such phenomenon include war, epidemic/plague or food shortage/scarcity.

The months of June-July are recognised as hunger months because of food scarcity as the harvested crops would have been exhausted. During this period, the Tiv resort to collecting wild plants and fruits. The Tiv used to cultivate millet (Pennisetum glaucum) and yams (Dioscorea spp.); today millet is hardly cultivated because of the difficulties involved in its production. It has gradually been replaced by Sorghum (Sorghum bicolor). Crops are harvested and brought to the compound. Yams are preserved in well ventilated house/hut or prepared area usually under a tree. Yams could be cooked and pounded or processed into yam chips or flour. Sorghum is threshed, treated with pesticides and bagged. They could be processed into three types of local beer namely Tashi which is fermented; Bier which is non-fermented or Lo which is a malt drink.

Day Three

Fieldwork and discussions: The Ushongo Rock Outcrop

The team visited the famous Ushongo rock outcrop (250-350m asl) where extensive archaeological studies have been carried out in the past. The rock outcrop is famous for its richness in archaeological materials such as pottery, kerb-foundations of huts, defence walls. It is central to Tiv history because it was at this rock outcrop that it is recorded that the Tiv won the decisive battle against the Ugenyi (Jukun). Unfortunately major parts of the site had been destroyed and converted to farmlands. This points to an interesting situation whereby former habitation sites, even in inaccessible locations, seem to retain enriched soils and encourage contemporary cultivation.

It was initially difficult for some individuals to climb up onto the rock outcrop but they were eventually assisted by the local guards and everyone made it!

Visit to the local Market: The team took a trip to the Ushongo and Adikpo Markets where they saw and interacted with vendors with regard to yams, cereals, beans, fruits, clothes etc. This gave us a lively introduction to the broader Tiv economy and the sheer range of plant and other foods on offer. The team also interacted with some of the vendors who informed us some of the goods and cereals (especially millet) were brought from neighbouring towns and villages. The team also witnessed cultural music and dance referred to as Kwangher.

Tiv pottery production

In the afternoon the team visited a traditional Tiv potter with the aim of thinking harder about the broader Tiv economy and material culture. Clay is sourced from the swamp or foot of the hills (e.g. Ushongo hills). It is prohibited for pregnant and menstruating women to embark on obtaining clay. It is believed that clay vessels made from clay sourced with iron implement would crack during firing hence no iron material is used. This may point to the practise of pottery production before the use of iron in the Tiv area. Potting is usually done by the women who are taught by their mothers or mother in-laws. Once the clay raw material is obtained, it is broken, sieved and soaked in water; no temper is added. Implements used in pottery production included Akinde leaf to shaping the rims, Iyase pod to enlarge the vessel to a desirable size, a mango seed to smoothen the clay vessel; bamboo sticks and plastic comb as decoration implements.

The Anthropology of Tiv soils

On returning from the field, in the evening the team discussed discussed the following: firstly, since the fertilisers were creating some ecological problems, it would be important to draw solutions from past experiences i.e. focus on traditional ways of improving the soils e.g. with some organic manure. Also, since land was becoming scarce and fallowing more difficult other strategies which are locally recognised as excellent for replenishing the soils should be adopted. Secondly, it was clear the history behind soil fertility needed to be understood; what is the Tiv perception of soil fertility, water regime, human and cultural management of soils. Thirdly were there any ecological effects on the soils due to the change from millet to sorghum cultivation? Fourthly it was also important to find out why the inorganic fertilisers are failing to produce the desired results.

Day Four

Fieldwork and discussions: the palaeoecology of the Benue Valley

The team was split into two groups. The first group went to Ushongo to discuss with a key informant, Mr. Atume while the second tram went to undertake a coring exercise so as to explore the potential for developing more extensive palaeoecological records.

(a) Visit to Elder Mr Atume

This discussion centred on Tiv farming traditions and changes in time. The team were informed that yams were the earliest and most prominent crops in Tiv land with over ten indigenous species (or varieties). The team immediately recognised this ethnobotany as an area requiring further study. The proposed study should involve ethnobotanical studies and origin of these yam varieties with attention on their archaeological significant; establishment of seed, pollen and phytolith collection/data bank to be used for future reference. Mr Atume also discussed the concept of food scarcity in Tiv culture; during such period the Tiv engaged in hunting and gathering exercises.

(b) Palaeoecological coring Exercise

It was thought that to shed light on the possible reasons why the Tiv moved up the hills from the valley and how the changing ecology has impacted on contemporary land management strategies, an attempt should be made at understanding the environment of the Benue valley during that period. It was concluded that sediment cores should be taken from areas where the sedimentation process has been relatively undisturbed by human action. The banks of the Katsina-Ala River were selected for coring. Before coring commenced, the paramount ruler of Katsina-Ala, Ter Katsina-Ala, HRH Benjamin Fezanga Wombo, was visited to obtain permission to work in his land. Having received us, he gave us a letter of authorisation and one of his sons accompanied us. Vegetation study and coring were carried out in the banks of the Katsina-Ala River. After several unsuccessful attempts, two sediment cores, 45cm and 55cm deep were obtained from the swamp under a water column of 30cm. The cores were obtained at N07’ 08.609”, E009’ 17. 886” (112m asl) and N07’ 08.611”, E009’ 17.899” (116m asl), and at 5cm intervals. A third set of samples was obtained from a freshly open wall section (110cm in depth) located on dry ground at N07’ 08.672”, E009’ 17.804”. These samples were obtained at 10cm intervals and will hopefully complement those from the swamp. Processing of these samples is ongoing and an interim report will be presented here shortly. 

Day Five

The Archaeology of the Tiv area

Following extensive team discussions and having established the contemporaneous nature of the settlements on the rock outcrops, it was decided that the defensive systems of the Tiv hills should be surveyed and inventory taken as to what needs to be done and by whom. This survey will involve collection of ceramics from hilltop sites and plot their locations with a GPS, and eventually produce a geo-referenced map. Such a detailed survey of the hilltop sites will afford the opportunity of documenting Tiv ceramic signatures, the extent and geographical spread of these signatures. In addition, these archaeological data will be compared with climate, vegetation and history as to what may have likely driven people up the hills. The possible factors include internal wars, slavery, political crises and epidemic. A documentation of Tiv folklore, proverbs and sayings will be done as they might shed light on some of these yet-to-be understood aspects of Tiv culture. All these shall form the focus of the next line of investigation.

Another focus of the Tiv project will be Archaeobotany and Geoarchaeology of Tiv plants and soils with special attention on indigenous crops and their cultural significance; introduction of “exotic” varieties and their effects on the cultural and ecological landscape of the Tiv valley. There is an urgent need to have a research design to handle crops particularly the staple crops of Tivland. With regard to the palaeoecology of the Tiv valley particularly the Katsina-Ala area, to ascertain environmental changes and their possible effects on the Tiv, the possibility of drilling boreholes in suitable sites in the valley for longer cores with greater time depth are to be considered. Two key factors crucial to the project are (a) staff and (b) funding. The Nigerian Universities particularly Ahmadu Bello University and University of Ibadan should take the lead in this regard. The experience of Marakwet where locals were engaged as part of the project is to be replicated in Tiv. For funding, it was suggested that the Tertiary Education Trust Fund (TETFund) should be explored. The results from these studies will be compared with those from related hilltop sites in the region (Cameroon, East and Central Africa) to have a broader understanding of human-landscape interactions, ancient farming traditions and cultural association in these hilltop settlements.


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