Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

Political and Economic Interactions in the Hinterland of the Mapungubwe Polity, c. AD 1200-1300, South Africa
by Antonites, Alexander, Ph.D., Yale University, 2012, 312; 3535390
Abstract (Summary)

The focus of this research is on the archaeological site known as Mutamba, situated on the northern slopes of the Soutpansberg, South Africa. The site was occupied during the 13th-century, a period during which northern South Africa, southern Zimbabwe, and eastern Botswana saw an increase in social complexity. In the heartland of the Mapungubwe polity, this process is characterized by the centralization of political, social and ritual power and authority by the elite members of society. Prior to this research, the communities that occupied the hinterland of Mapungubwe were cast as passive participants in this metanarrative. This dissertation critiques the assumption of dominance based solely on differences of complexity.

The extent of Mapungubwe dominance is mostly seen in the distribution of similar ceramic design over the region. This view, however, inherently assumes that similarity in ceramic design entails similarity of social process; hence the dynamics of power and control postulated for the Shashe-Limpopo River Confluence Area (SLCA) heartland are also thought to hold for the greater hinterland.

Excavations at Mutamba yielded multiple strands of information that suggest a reappraisal of the accepted view of hinterland society as inert and un-influential in regional dynamics. The presence of glass beads, gold, iron, copper, wild cotton cloth and marine shells imply that hinterland sites, like Mutamba, had access to a repertoire of artifacts traditionally considered to be restricted to elite consumption. The presence of gold from a hinterland site, suggests its use in both local and regional negotiations of power as well as to obtain other items through diverse trade networks. This indicates that hinterland communities had significant agentive power in shaping their participation and acceptance of exotic items.

Production activities at Mutamba point to a variety of different strategies and scales of organization. Evidence indicates that both shell-bead manufacture and cotton spinning took place within household settings. Shell beads were produced on a limited scale reflecting production to satisfy household needs with some surplus for trade purposes. Cotton spinning points to a much greater involvement in production by many members of the household. In contrast to both, metals were crafted by small groups of specialists, while smelting probably took place off-site. My research supports a view of hinterland communities actively exploiting ecological and environmental settings to engage with long distance trade networks. The picture that emerges is one of a society in which economic participation and power over vast hinterlands were variable. Regionally specific activities such as the production of spun fiber enabled dispersed communities to acquire long distance goods.

The contrasting patterns between the Mapungubwe hinterland and heartland suggest that hierarchy formation in the heartland co-occurred with the horizontal expansion of social relations through networking strategies in the hinterland. Evidence from Mutamba shows that political power at Mapungubwe was counterpoised between maintaining generalized subsistence production and more intensive efforts to acquire trade goods. Centralization and control of exotic items may have existed in tension with the necessity to maintain networks of interaction in order to obtain long distance items. In the Mapungubwe heartland, there was a clear emphasis on centralizing processes and the accumulation of material wealth. However, at settlements in the hinterland, the distribution of prestige items suggests that hinterland communities were able to use their position to acquire trade goods usually considered restricted to elite spheres of society in the heartland. The heartland's interaction with hinterland communities was one of forging networks, with a greater emphasis on wealth in people than control over the economy of the hinterland. At a regional scale, this resulted in a society with weak vertical control and a fluctuating, flexible system of horizontal integration. Centralization in the SLCA was distinguished from a heterogeneous and varied hinterland occupied by foragers, herders, and farming communities. The Mapungubwe hinterland was a region where class and power was expressed in a diversity of ways.

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: McIntosh, Roderick J.
Commitee: Honeychurch, William, Underhill, Anne
School: Yale University
Department: Anthropology
School Location: United States -- Connecticut
Source: DAI-A 74/05(E), Dissertation Abstracts International
Subjects: Archaeology, South African Studies
Keywords: Economic interactions, Mapungubwe polity, Mutamba site, Social complexity, South Africa
Publication Number: 3535390
ISBN: 978-1-267-85670-8
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