Alongside most Nigerian religious adherence were systems of belief with ancient roots in the area. These beliefs combined family ghosts with relations to the primordial spirits of a particular site. In effect the rights of a group defined by common genealogical descent were linked to a particular place and the settlements within it. The primary function of such beliefs was to provide supernatural sanctions and legitimacy to the relationship between, and the regulations governing, claims on resources, especially agricultural land and house sites. Access rights to resources, political offices, economic activities, or social relations were defined and legitimized by these same religious beliefs.
The theology expressing and protecting these relationships centered, first, on the souls of the recently dead, ghosts who continued their interest in the living as they had when they were alive. That is to say, authoritative elders demanded conformity to rules governing access to, and inheritance of, rights to resources. Indigenous theology also comprised all of the duties of the living to one another and to their customs, including their obligations to the dead ancestors whose spirits demanded adherence to the moral rules governing all human actions. The second pantheon were the supernatural residents of the land. These spirits of place (trees, rock outcroppings, a river, snakes, or other animals and objects) were discovered and placated by the original founders, who had migrated to the new site from a previous one. Spirits of the land might vary with each place or be so closely identified with a group’s welfare that they were carried to a new place as part of the continuity of a group to its former home. In the new place, these spiritual migrants joined the local spirit population. Such deities developed from an original covenant created by the founders of a settlement between themselves and the local spirits. This covenant legitimized their arrival. In return for regular rites and prayers to these spirits, the founders could claim perpetual access to local resources. In doing so, they became the lineage in charge of the hereditary local priesthood and village headship and were recognized as “owners of the place” by later human arrivals. Both sets of spirits, those of family and those of place, demanded loyalty to communal virtues and to the authority of the elders in defending ancient beliefs and practices.