The Ile Ife (ile ife) Notes 12 June 2023 by Eben van Tonder (last updated 15 June 2023)
This weekend I paid my first visit to the ancient West-African city of Ile Ife (ile ife), the centre of the traditional Yoruba faith. I wrote my first impressions down early the next morning in “My First Visit to Ile Ife (ile ife): Foundational Work in Uncovering our African Nutritional Heritage.” So much information is being uncovered from my visit to the city and as I read accounts of the earliest visitors to West Africa who chronicled their experiences and local people who wrote about their own countries and regions I become aware of the massive amount of data. I, therefore, decided to create a platform where I share the bullet points of what I learned. This will enable co-workers from across Africa and the world to weigh in on the facts that I consider and it will give me a place to dump the bullet points observations and quotes I come across. This page will be an ongoing project.
How do I Deal with “Haunting” Facts?
I said that the experience was haunting and hugely significant and impactful. I elaborated on the latter in the link I just shared (My First Visit to Ile Ife (ile ife): Foundational Work in Uncovering our African Nutritional Heritage). The first night I decided not to make comparative remarks on strong thematic and substantive similarities I see between Christianity – the system I am intimately acquainted with. I also suspect similar strong similarities between the organized Ifa/Orisha religious activities associated with the Yoruba faith and Judaism, Hinduism and Islamic faith. I am, however not an expert on the last three. For the sake of my work, I will not further elaborate on the comparisons I see.
As far as meat science is concerned and nutrition, the focus of my work, I have been in agony about whether I should present everything that I learn. At first, I was shocked at some of the components that I came face-to-face with and my entire being turned away from them. Since Saturday there has been an intense soul searching and early this morning I woke up and clarity dawned on me. These are facts of human existence. The facts, as disturbing as they may be, contain valuable clues.
Over the years I read many accounts of the earliest explorers in Africa. There are many instances where the writer interprets an action or event from the perspective of his own culture in a way that one can clearly see a very strong cultural bias. Some events were so repulsive to them that they simply refused to describe it or comment on it.
One example will suffice. A notable author documented the religion and mythology of the San Bushman of Southern Africa. Some aspects of the tradition were so offensive to him, that, for the sake of “protecting the reader,” he did not include it in his work, thus robbing successive generations of information of untold value. As I reflected on this, I realised that I am making myself guilty of exactly the same thing. I decided to allow the methodology of Dr Jacob Olupano, from Harvard Divinity School, author of “The City of 201 Gods: Ile Ife in Time, Space and Imagination,” who introduced me to the city, to guide me in his methodology by simply reporting on the facts without any emotional involvement one way of the other.
I would therefore divide my notes into two. One for general consumption and one that will carry a warning to the reader that it is not for the sensitive reader, “The Restricted Ile Ife (ile ife) Notes.”
Two problems immediately arose. One is that I have been practising this bias for as long as I have been researching the ancient origins of meat processing. There have been observations I made from the literature, over many years, which I would simply ignore (choose to forget) due to the repulsive nature according to my own estimation. These are bits of information I came across in the usual course of my research. I was so repulsed, I did not even want to note them down, nor did I!
This leads to a second problem namely that where I now decide to purposefully abandon this foolish approach, I have little actual referenced evidence to show that what I will chronicle in the “restricted notes” has been widely practised around the world for millennia and it may appear that I am presenting the evidence as if it was only in Africa where these things happened. The facts can not be further from the truth and I commit to circle back and review the same practices around the world, from every culture. Doing so will have an important point besides placing the African reports in perspective and that is painting the picture in any time of a somewhat universal culture. If something was happening in one location on the globe, you can believe that it is happening in many others!
Separating Religion from Science
In discussing some of these elements further today through WhatsApp with the spiritual leader in Ile Ife, he pointed out to me that my questions relate to physical things where his area of focus is spiritual. I conceded that it is so, but my thesis is that our spiritual practices of today have some basis in reality from the past. I did a YouTube clip on my way to Ile Ife. The link is “https://youtu.be/wRSrNQzFgRs”. In this video, I made the case that human sacrifice has been part of human existence for millennia and that the death of Jesus Christ by its very nature is exactly that, a human sacrifice! The fact of the crucifixion and death of Jesus (as far as we take the religious accounts as facts) have been interpreted in spiritual terms, but this, in all likelihood does not take away from the fact that Jesus was an actual person who was crucified. Not understanding the “why” behind the observations led them to encapsulate it in religious mythology. “Fact“ was probably first, followed by romanticizing it and building mythology! It was the “why” that we speculated to be behind the fact. The basic sequence is the exact same today in science. The difference is in the construction of the “why“. What we want to do is work backwards. Begin with the myth and try and ascertain the “fact” behind it. The “restricted mythology,” which I will report in a separate page of notes, is also part of what flows from the myth and ignoring it will be to our detriment! No matter how objectionable it is to any particular person, group or culture, we must not miss the thinking and mythology behind actions.
Notes from Ile Ife
– Visit to Ile Ife on 10 June 2023
- The power is in the blood.
- Blood trumps meat in terms of power.
- There was a lively tradition of blood being consumed by the people. One person remembers his grandmother boiling the blood into a spongy substance which was consumed.
- Asking a 96-year-old man at the abattoir about it, he maintained that the blood should not be consumed by humans. I wonder if this does not represent a government program aimed at dissuading people from eating the blood.
- Blood in the daily sacrifice at the different shrines has been replaced by gin. One of the chiefs told me that it would otherwise have required too many sacrifices which involve a scarce resource, namely the animals. It seemed to me that when the Oòni (King) of Ife visits the shrines once a year, he brings an actual sacrifice.
- Important sacrifices are still made with animal blood.
- Tendons have a special healing ability for people who suffer from joint pain or fractures. It has the ability to “fuse bones”.
- The cow head is immediately roasted in fire and sold roasted. This “preserves it.”
- The blood is drained and given as pig food. It’s not mixed with anything. The pigs eat it as it comes. It is interesting that it’s fed to pigs. This notion of cross-species feeding reminds me of a principle that was brought in by the WHO. It is too neat! In ancient times, my contention is that people ate the blood.
- When an animal is hunted and throat slit to bleed out, there is no three-way discussion between the hunter, the animal and the deity. The blood that spills onto the ground is, however, seen as a sacrifice. I have heard accounts from southern Africa that the blood was collected in the intestines of other animals that were hunted and slaughtered so that it does not go to waste. These were then fried over a fire back at the camp which is completely consistent with the view that blood was consumed by humans. Due to the distance between us and the practice, I am not able to get specific reasons why the observation was made that blood is “stronger” than meat.
- Offal has a unique “healing ability.” When a woman is pregnant or someone is recovering from an illness, that person is encouraged to consume intestines.
- Likewise, I can find no mythology about the medicinal value of intestines as we have related to blood.
- The skin and the hooves have similar “strength” as the intestines but still, the intestines are in a league of their own in terms of “healing ability” to the sick and the pregnant woman.
- The function of the blood seems to be the “satisfaction of the god.” The deity is satisfied by the blood of certain animals. This speaks to the inherent potency of blood which, in my thesis, was obtained through observation and subjective experience of consuming blood vs consuming meat only with no blood. The deity, therefore, is satisfied by the most potent. Similarly, if a sacrifice is made to “buy” something from a god such as good fortune, blood will be a higher currency than meat. This is conjecture, but I present it to elicit comments from readers. Is this statement true or false?
- “The god eats” one or the other animal seems to refer to the burning of the animal carcass.
- An engineer I work with, in Lagos, studied at the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile Ife, where we stayed for the weekend. Discussing the concepts with him at work today, he made extremely valuable suggestions. He is a Christian and not a devotee of the Ife traditional faith system. Still, his general insights are excellent. He noted that for the killing of animals, especially smaller ones like pigs, birds and small game, the cutting of the throat is not required and that within the Old Testament, there are provisions which necessitate the bleeding out of the animal. It occurred to me that slitting the throat would be a cultural practice which would have been “discovered.” The bleeding out of the carcass is by no means “natural.” My engineering friend suggested that within the act of offering blood by cutting the neck, there is the concept of bleeding out. I discovered that he is correct and the background to the practice is in the first place religious and cultural. This may have food safety implications, but it should be remembered that blood is inherently sterile and by itself does not pose a food safety risk. The practice of bleeding the animal in modern times is mainly a practical measure. As for Jews and Muslims, it is probably firstly a religious requirement and secondly a matter of practicality. As far as food safety is concerned, on the one hand, it can be argued that bacteria will spread faster through blood than meat but, on the other hand, the chances that such bacteria will be pathogenic are small if we consider the size of the colony of harmless (beneficial) bacteria on an animal carcass which will keep any pathogens at bay. Refer to Ofori and Yun-Hwa (2014) below in the Reference section for a detailed discussion of the risks associated with the consumption of blood and Lynch (2017) on the nutritional value of blood.
- On the nutritional value of blood, I quote Lynch (2017): “Blood has excellent nutritive value, not only because of its high protein content but also because of the bioavailability of the nutrients (Par´es and others 2011). It is important to note, however, that blood is deficient in the essential amino acids methionine and isoleucine (Par´es and others 2011). Blood is a rich source of iron, which is contained in the hemoglobin of red blood cells (RBCs), and this heme iron has a high bioavailability as it is more easily absorbed than nonorganic iron from plants or the ferrous salts commonly used in the fortification of foods (In and others 2002). It has been well reported that blood protein, despite the lower amounts in methionine and isoleucine, can be used as a source of high-quality proteins for both animal feed and human consumption (Tybor and others 1975; Imeson and others 1978; Duarte and others 1999; Prata and Sgarbieri 2008; Lee and Song 2009; Ofori and Hsieh 2011; Bah and others 2013; Par´es and others 2014).”
Questions to answer
- Is there a “healer” tradition in Ife? Traditional medicine?
- Is there anything that says that the strength of the animal enters the body of the person who drinks the blood or eats the meat?
- The tail of the cow is a delicacy. Why? Is it only due to taste or is there something else?
- Is the tail cooked with or without skin?
- If the tail or head is roasted, is it necessary to do any more work to remove leftover hairs or is all the hairs singed off by the fire?
- Do animals have spirits?
Further Study: Benefits of Consuming Blood
Apart from the protein content and the bioavailability of this key nutrient, one of the biggest benefits of consuming blood is the intake of iron. What would the comparison be between a person deficient in iron intake and one who has lots of iron in his or her diet?
The key conclusion is that a person deficient in iron and one with sufficient iron in their diet will exhibit notable differences in their overall performance and well-being. Here are some potential differences between the two that would have been identified through simple observation:
- Energy and Fatigue Levels: Iron-deficient individuals may experience persistent fatigue, weakness, and reduced stamina due to the decreased oxygen-carrying capacity of their blood. They may feel tired even with minimal physical exertion. Conversely, individuals with sufficient iron levels are more likely to have better energy levels, allowing them to engage in daily activities and exercise more effectively. It is easy to see the impact that this observation would have had on ancient people.
- Cognitive Function: Iron deficiency can impact cognitive function, including memory, attention, and concentration. Iron is crucial for the synthesis of neurotransmitters involved in brain function. Those deficient in iron may experience difficulties with focus, learning, and cognitive performance. In contrast, individuals with sufficient iron intake are more likely to have better cognitive abilities, including improved memory and mental processing. In terms of overall ability to plan and strategise, the ancient human who consumed blood regularly would have had noticeable advantages.
- Physical Performance: Another key observation in antiquity would have been that iron-deficient individuals may experience reduced physical performance, endurance, and athletic abilities due to the insufficient supply of oxygen to the muscles during exercise. They may have shown decreased strength and slower recovery. In contrast, individuals with sufficient iron levels were more likely to have better physical performance, including enhanced endurance and muscular strength.
- Immune Function: Iron deficiency can compromise immune system function, making individuals more susceptible to infections and illnesses. They may experience frequent infections and prolonged recovery periods. In contrast, individuals with sufficient iron intake are more likely to have a stronger immune system and better resistance against infections.
- Overall Well-being: Iron deficiency can have a significant impact on overall well-being, leading to feelings of weakness, lethargy, irritability, and mood disturbances. In contrast, individuals with sufficient iron levels would have been more likely to experience improved well-being, better mood regulation, and an overall sense of vitality.
The value of increased iron intake would have been significant and noticeable. Blood would have been extremely valuable to the ancients! It may have been the source of the cultural (technological) development of cutting the animal’s throat and allowing it to bleed out. Doing it first, before the animal was slaughtered would have prevented too much of this valuable liquid from spilling onto the ground and being wasted (later it was seen as worship, i.e. an offering). The presence of high iron content in blood is likely to be the scientific underpinning for the value the ancients placed in the blood.
Within this discussion, we must not for a moment forget the ancient concept of vitality and the mythical connotation the ancients had to anything that came from a living body. They would have noticed that when someone or an animal bleeds out, life is lost at the same time. Imagine, as the blood flows out, the person or animal will become weaker and weaker until there is no more life left. The Jewish belief that life is in the blood would have been a common observation by all people. We can state that this would have been a strong enforcing factor to create the mythology surrounding blood.
Possible reasons for the prohibition to consume blood in the Jewish system (and later, Muslim) will be discussed separately.
Further Study: Iron, the Main Benefit of Consuming Blood.
One of the best nutritional reasons for consuming blood is to get access to iron. The lack of iron is a major scourge around the world even today, let alone in antiquity. Poskitt (2003) discussed the lack of iron in diets in modern days and back into antiquity.
She writes that “iron deficiency has been described as ‘probably the most frequent nutritional deficiency in the world’ with perhaps 2 billion individuals across the world suffering the most obvious outcome – iron deficiency anaemia (IDA). Prehistoric human skeletal remains frequently show many small holes in the compact outer bony layers of the skull together with widening of the diploë (the spongy layer between the inner and outer compact layers of the flat bones of the skull). This condition, known as porotic hyperostosis (PH), resembles the bony findings in inherited anaemias but is widespread in regions such as northern Europe and North America where genetically determined anaemias are uncommon. Stuart-MacAdam (1992) therefore argued that PH indicates IDA in these remains. This view is supported by PH increasing in prevalence with archaeological evidence for communities moving from hunter-gatherer to agricultural societies, particularly when they took up the culture of maize – a very poor source of absorbable iron.”
Posskit (2003) did an excellent review and I give her full work for download under the Reference section. She offers the following concise description of the result of iron deficiency called anaemia. Anaemia is a blood disorder in which the blood has a reduced ability to carry oxygen due to a lower-than-normal number of red blood cells which in turn is caused by low levels of iron intake. She writes that “most symptoms and signs of anaemia are non-specific being tiredness, lethargy, loss of appetite, depression, pallor, breathlessness on exertion. One specific feature of iron deficiency, koilonychia, comes from a twentieth-century description by Kaznelson (Davies, 1931) although it is represented in the ancient ‘Lydney hand’. This bronze model of a forearm, presumably a votive offering, was unearthed at a Celtic shrine next to a Roman iron mine in Lydney Park, Gloucestershire, and shows spoon-shaped nails, suggesting a connection between the supplicant and iron deficiency (Hart, 1981, 2001).” (Posskit, 2003)
Please email me at email@example.com or WhatsApp me at +27 71 545 3029, if you have any comments, explanations, or further information.
YouTube clip on my way to Ife: https://youtu.be/wRSrNQzFgRs
YouTube link where I reflect on my day in the city is: https://youtu.be/GteP5UbL4kg
Notes from Ife and other sources
- The Ile Ife (ile ife) Notes – the current note.
- The Restricted Ile Ife (ile ife) Notes – notes not suitable for the sensitive reader. Graphic images involving human sacrifice and torture.
- My First Visit to Ile Ife (ile ife): Foundational Work in Uncovering our African Nutritional Heritage – personal reflections on my first day in Ife.
Introduction to the general subject
- Meat and Groundnuts in Ancient Africa: Extracts from Old Manuscripts and Early Writings
- The Nutty’ness of African Meat Curing
The menu page for work on ancient meat technology and nutrition is: “Meat: From Prehistory into the More Recent, but Still, Distant Past“
References and Further Reading
Poskitt EM. Early history of iron deficiency. Br J Haematol. 2003 Aug;122(4):554-62. doi: 10.1046/j.1365-2141.2003.04529.x. PMID: 12899710.
Lynch SA, Mullen AM, O’Neill EE, García CÁ. Harnessing the Potential of Blood Proteins as Functional Ingredients: A Review of the State of the Art in Blood Processing. Compr Rev Food Sci Food Saf. 2017 Mar;16(2):330-344. doi: 10.1111/1541-4337.12254. Epub 2017 Feb 9. PMID: 33371539.