African Archaeological Review

, Volume 36, Issue 1, pp 105–117 | Cite as

Fiber Spinning During the Mapungubwe Period of Southern Africa: Regional Specialism in the Hinterland

  • Alexander AntonitesEmail author
Original Article


The Middle Iron Age (MIA) of southern Africa is a period characterized by increased social complexity centered on the polity of Mapungubwe. This article considers the role that fiber spinning played in the regional political economy of the period. At Mutamba and other sites in the southern hinterland of Mapungubwe, spinning was a significant economic activity. Evidence from 187 spindle whorls from the site suggests that intensive spinning of cotton was practiced by households. This enabled hinterland communities to actively participate in regional trade networks and acquire trade goods, including objects that were often restricted in the Mapungubwe heartland. This casts hinterland communities as active participants, rather than passive bystanders, in the regional economy.


Mapungubwe Iron Age Hinterlands Spindle whorls Craft production Trade 


L'âge du Fer Moyen en Afrique du sud est une période caractérisée par une complexité sociale accrue centrée sur la politique de Mapungubwe. Cet article examine le rôle joué par la filature de fibres dans l'économie politique régionale de cette période. À Mutamba et dans d’autres sites de l’arrière-pays méridional de Mapungubwe, la filature était une activité économique importante. Des preuves provenant de 187 volants de fuseaux du site suggèrent que le filage intensif du coton était pratiqué par les ménages. Cela a permis aux communautés de l'arrière-pays de participer activement aux réseaux commerciaux régionaux et d'acquérir des biens commerciaux, notamment des objets souvent restreints dans le centre de Mapungubwe. Cela fait des communautés de l'arrière-pays des participants actifs aux économies régionales plutôt que des passants passifs.



I wish to thank the anonymous reviewers and the editor for their comments. I would like to thank the Kincaid-Smith family for their support during excavations at Mutamba. My gratitude to Annie Antonites for her assistance in preparing the text, Chriselle Bruwer and the students from Yale University and the University of Pretoria who participated in the excavation and analyses, Johnny van Schalkwyk and the Ditsong National Museum of Cultural History for the opportunity to examine their spindle whorl collection, and Sian Tiley-Nel for providing information on spindle whorls in the Mapungubwe Collection at the University of Pretoria Museums.


This study was funded by the National Science Foundation (grant number 1058306) and Yale McMillian Foundation.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of Interest

The author declares that he has no conflict of interest.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Anthropology and ArchaeologyUniversity of PretoriaPretoriaSouth Africa

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