The movement of populations into present Yorubaland appears to have been a slow process that began in the northeast, where the Niger and Benue rivers meet, and spread south and southwest. Archaeological evidence indicates Stone Age inhabitants were in this area between the tenth and second centuries B.C. By the ninth century A.D. , blacksmithing and agriculture had emerged at Ife, a settlement that reached an artistic and political zenith between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries and is mythologized as the cradle of Yoruba peoples. Political development also appears to have been slow and incremental. Never unified politically, the Yoruba at contact were organized in hundreds of minor polities ranging from villages to city-states to large kingdoms, of which there were about twenty. Expansion took place through the federation of small communities and, later, through aggressive conquest. The famed Kingdom of Oyo, which emerged in the fourteenth century, relied heavily on trade and conquest to make it West Africa's largest coastal empire. At its peak in the late seventeenth century, seventy war chiefs lived in the capital city.
For many Yoruba, urbanism was a way of life. Europeans learned of the city of Ijebu Ode early in the sixteenth century, when they exchanged brass bracelets for slaves and ivory. The Ijebu Yoruba were, and continue to be, known for their business acumen. Commerce with Europe expanded in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as the New World demand for slaves increased. This lucrative trade stimulated competition, a thirst for increased power, and a rise in internal warfare that laid waste to the countryside and depopulated vast areas. Oyo declined in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, but urban populations expanded, and two new states emerged, Ibadan and Egba, founded by wartime refugees.
Following the abolition of the slave trade, missionaries arrived in the 1840s, and Great Britain annexed a small strip of the Yoruba-dominated coastland—the Settlement of Lagos—in 1861. Gradually, British forces and traders worked their way inland; by the dawn of the twentieth century, all Yoruba were brought into the empire. Early exposure to Christian education and economic opportunities gave the Yoruba an advantage in penetrating European institutions. By the time of Nigerian independence (1960), they had taken over most high administrative positions in their region, making theirs a relatively smooth transition to a Westernized bureaucratic government.