Cottoning on to Cotton (Gossypium spp.) in Arabia and Africa During Antiquity

  • Charlène BouchaudEmail author
  • Alan Clapham
  • Claire Newton
  • Gaëlle Tallet
  • Ursula Thanheiser


The occurrences of cotton in texts and in the archaeological record (seeds, fibres and textiles) demonstrate the emergence of cotton production centres in north-eastern Africa and western Arabia during the 1st–4th centuries AD, which is concurrent with an increase of cotton trade. These finds could correspond to any of the two Old World domestic cotton species: Gossypium arboreum L., probably domesticated in the Indus valley and traded since the 3rd millennium BC, or Gossypium herbaceum L., an African species about which very little is known, beside its presence in Nubia during Antiquity. Our paper reviews the archaeobotanical, textile and textual data from north-eastern Africa and western Arabia, with specific attention to several sites located in Central Sudan (Muweis), Lower Nubia (Qasr Ibrim), western Egypt (Kellis, Amheida) and north-western Arabia (Madâ’in Sâlih/Hegra). The intention of this review is to a) document how cotton production was integrated into agrarian and trade economies and b) examine current hypotheses regarding the diachronic distribution of the two species. The results highlight the importance of cotton in different agrosystems from the 1st–2nd centuries AD. In Central Sudan, Nubia and Dakhleh oasis, cotton cultivation appeared together with other new tropical/sub-tropical crops, such as sorghum ( Sorghum bicolor) and pearl millet (Pennisetum glaucum subsp. glaucum). This was not the case in north-western Arabia. It seems that cotton production occurred at first as small-scale experiments before scaling up during the 3rd century AD, in conjunction with the spread of the water-wheel in the Nile valley. Cotton in Nubia, and possibly in other neighbouring areas, probably belonged to the African species G. herbaceum, which was in all likelihood domesticated in southern regions, perhaps Ethiopia. We suggest that the increase of exchanges across the Indian Ocean during Antiquity created a favourable context for the emergence of cotton production and its relative expansion before the Islamic period.


Antiquity Arabia Cotton Gossypium arboreum/herbaceum Northeastern Africa 



We thank the members of the Fyssen Foundation for awarding the Grant Research (2016–2017) that supported this study.

Charlène Bouchaud and Claire Newton are grateful to Marie Millet for inviting them to participate in the French archaeological mission at Muweis, making available the unpublished radiocarbon dates and for her comments on this paper. Charlène Bouchaud also warmly thank Daifallah al-Talhi, Laïla Nehmé and François Villeneuve for having entrusted her with the analysis of the plant remains from Madâ’in Sâlih.

Alan Clapham would like to thank Dr Pamela Rose of the Österriechisches Archälogisches Institut Zweigstelle Kairo for the opportunity to work on the plant remains from Hisn al Bab, Aswan, Egypt and The Egyptian Exploration Society and Dr Pamela Rose for the chance to work on the material from Qasr Ibrim.

We also thank the two anonymous reviewers for their valuable comments on the first draft of this paper, as well as Anna Maria Mercuri and the IWAA8 team for the organisation of the conference in Modena.


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Charlène Bouchaud
    • 1
    Email author
  • Alan Clapham
    • 2
  • Claire Newton
    • 3
  • Gaëlle Tallet
    • 4
  • Ursula Thanheiser
    • 5
  1. 1.AASPE-UMR 7209, CNRS-MNHN, Universités Paris-SorbonneParisFrance
  2. 2.Ely, CambridgeshireUK
  3. 3.Laboratoire D’Archéologie et de PatrimoineUniversité Du Québec à RimouskiRimouskiCanada
  4. 4.CRIHAM-EA 4270, University of LimogesLimogesFrance
  5. 5.Vienna Institute for Archaeological Science, University of ViennaViennaAustria

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