In the Udi cultural zone of Enugu State, in the highland town of Nsude, there were, until the 1930s when they were first photographed and last confirmed intact, a set of circular step pyramids. Made of hardened red mud and clay, they were of varying circumferences (45-80 ft) and heights (40 ft). The mystery of their construction has been held by historians as one more proof of how lost knowledges of past African civilisations have hindered the positive reconstruction of our histories.
Archivists have advanced theories on the pyramids’ origins. Because ancient Nsude people were known for wartime exploits, the pyramids were likely surveillance structures against hostile neighbouring communities. This explains their location in Nsude’s boundary villages: one large one in Umuaka, overlooking present-day Ngwo and Nkanu areas, and 10 in Ugwuto, overlooking Owa in present-day Ezeagu Local Government Area.
A second but related theory is that the pyramids were built in memory of Nsude’s greatest warrior, Uto-Nsude, who eventually became regarded as a deity. A third is that the structures might have been furnaces for iron-smelting; but this has been challenged as Nsude and the wider Udi zone have not been historically known to be involved in the iron-smelting industry.
According to the Igbo cultural archive Ukpuru, the pyramids have also been said to honour Ala, the motherland deity, to indicate Her ownership of the land. The deity dwelt at the pinnacle of the structures, reportedly represented by small sticks inserted into the clay near their tops.
The pyramids did not make it beyond local oral history until the 1890s arrival of British geographers and explorers seeking minerals. One of them, Luke Walter, is reported to have visited in 1891 but either failed to document it because he didn’t consider it remarkable or whatever he documented became lost. In 1935, a Welsh anthropologist and photographer, Gwilym Iwan “GI” Jones, who was the colonial District Officer for Bende Division, took the first photographs of the pyramids, and his notes behind the printed photos have since become essential information about the structures. Jones covered much of southeastern Nigeria and his Roloflex camera was able to produce negatives whose high quality have not faded decades on.
Some archaeologists reportedly believe the Nsude Pyramids to have been built in the third century BC—around the same time that the first Egyptian pyramids were built. Pro-Biafra thought leaders, who believe that the Igbo are related to the Jews, hypothesize that the pyramids were built by a group of Israelites, descended from the House of Gad, who left Egypt, mixed with Nubians, and ventured south until they reached the West African rainforest, where they mixed with the original Igbo. While the hypothesis is unverifiable and has been challenged by some historians, the connection is, they explain, why the pyramids resemble the Step Pyramids of Saqqara (built around 2670 BC) in Egypt, because both came from the same religio-cultural tradition.
There are scholars, like Obi Nwakanma, who have been quoted as believing that the Nsude Pyramids might predate the great pyramids of Egypt and that the British colonialists, stunned by the complexity of indigenous African architecture, suppressed archeological surveys of Igbo culture; which explains, they say, why the Igbo, despite being a major ethnic group, have been understudied.
In the 1970s, Vanguard reports, the Umuaka village union in Nsude constructed a concrete cement replica of a pyramid, to mark its significance. The original pyramids have since been worn out.
Otosirieze Obi-Young is Editor of Folio Nigeria, where he profiles innovators and facilitators in culture: art, business, entertainment, activism, health, food. He is a writer, journalist, curator, media consultant, former academic, and Founder & Editor-in-Chief of Open Country Mag, a new online platform covering African literature. In 2019, he received the inaugural The Future Awards Africa Prize for Literature. In 2020, he was named among "The 100 Most Influential Young Nigerians" by Avance Media. Find him on otosirieze.com or on Twitter & Insta: @otosirieze.