An important urban center in contemporary southwestern Nigeria, Ife's origins can be traced back to around 350 B.C., when it began as a cluster of some thirteen hamlets. Ife holds particular significance to the Yoruba, a traditionally urban people who represent one of the largest ethnic groups in Nigeria and on the African continent. Spreading through the African diaspora, Yoruba heritage has furthermore made important contributions to the cultures of Cuba, Brazil, and the United States. The many religious arts of the Yoruba have long served to mediate relations between worshippers and an elaborate pantheon of gods, and have more recently expanded to address the Muslim and Christian faiths. Yoruba peoples today maintain a plurality of views but remain linked by a common cultural heritage.
According to the Yoruba worldview, Ife is the place of origin of all humankind and is therefore of particular religious and political importance. Here the deities Odudua and Obatala, under instruction from the creator Olodumare, began the creation of the world. Obatala has become associated primarily with the creation of the first humans with clay, while Odudua's legacy as the first divine king of the Yoruba is political. Yoruba monarchs still trace their lineage back to the founding of Ife, and it remains the seat of Yoruba sacred kingship. The Oni (King) of Ife, himself considered to be descended from the god Odudua, determines the legitimacy of all other Yoruba kings by assessing their right to wear royal beaded crowns.
In the latter half of the first millennium A.D., Ife began to develop into a flourishing artistic center. The discovery of Ife's now famous naturalistic bronzes, terracottas, and stone sculptures challenged European assumptions about the nature of African art and initiated significant debates concerning the antiquity of its past.