Ancient cotton


Cotton is a truly ancient commodity.  It has been cultivated by humans since approximately 3500 BCE in four distinct areas: Africa, South America, India, and Central America.  In turn, unlike many important commodities like sugar and coffee that originated in Afro-Eurasia and were brought to the Americas after 1500, cotton was already both growing wild and under human cultivation around the world well before the early modern period.  Thus, while the manner in which it was cultivated, manufactured, and distributed has changed enormously over time, cotton has always been a part of human societies.  More to the point, cotton has always been exchanged between regions and cultures; its practical characteristics are such that it has always lent itself admirably to commerce.

While there are various varieties of cotton, all are part of genus Gossypium.  It grows in both tropical and temperate climates and requires an abundance of moisture, a factor that restricted its cultivation to well-watered regions until the advent of modern water management in the twentieth century.  Cotton cloth is lightweight, warm, and comfortable, but cotton fibers are difficult to spin into yarn, requiring a high degree of technical sophistication to process.  Despite this challenge, cotton has been cultivated and woven since the very beginnings of human settlement in various places around the world.  

Discussion of any commodity in the ancient world is difficult due to the paucity of sources.  It is impossible to reconstruct details like the prevalence or value of a commodity in terms of quantitative data if detailed records of exchange do not exist.  Thus, in the case of cotton, we are forced to rely on anecdotal references alone for information about cotton’s place in the pre-modern era.  Fortunately, between archeological evidence and references to cotton-spinning and exchange in various sources, historians are able to stitch together an idea of where cotton came from and how it was used.


Archeological finds indicate that cotton was first cultivated in Eurasia in what is present-day Pakistan.  It spread to areas in the Indus river valley, where the ancient Harappan civilization thrived from c. 3300 BCE.  The Harappans left no written records of any kind, and thus information about them is based entirely on what archeologists have unearthed, including shreds of cotton cloth.  The Harappan civilization vanished in approximately 1600 BCE for unknown reasons; whether or not they had pioneered early cotton cultivation and weaving techniques or had inherited them from elsewhere is unknown, but it is clear that by the time their civilization ended those techniques had diffused to various areas in the Indian subcontinent.

The first written records concerning Indian cotton are fragments from Buddhist and early Hindu texts which refer to cotton weaving by women in various locations in northern India, albeit centuries later.  Narratives describe small-scale cotton farms which produced cloth as a cash crop for peasant cultivators around 500 CE.  Early but effective versions of cotton gins were in use before 1000 CE to clean the cotton and remove its seeds, a technology which seems to have spread from India to China by the thirteenth century of the common era.  Thus, while the details will probably never be entirely clear, it is evident that Indian cotton production was widespread and successful since the earliest known Indian society and was practiced with considerable technical sophistication.

Ancient Greek and Roman texts also make references to Indian cotton.  It was initially described as a tree that grew wool; some ancient accounts claimed that the cotton plant was a kind of shrub that grew tiny sheep that grazed on the grass below.  That rather picturesque legacy survives today in the German term for cotton, Baumwolle, which literally translates in English as “tree wool.”  Plant-animal hybrids aside, it is quite clear that cotton was one of the commodities cultivated in India traded to the ancient Greeks and Romans.  Large quantities of Roman coins have been found in Indian archeological sites and it has been established that Alexander the Great wore cotton after his conquest of northwestern Indian kingdoms.

Meanwhile, in the Americas, archeologists have established the existence of large-scale cotton cultivation in the Andean region of South America, the Valley of Mexico, and the Caribbean hundreds, if not thousands, of years before the rise of the great civilizations of the Aztecs, Maya, and Inca.  Just as the remnants of cotton garments have been found in Egyptian tombs, so shreds of cotton have been found wrapped around mummies in the Andes, dating to centuries before the beginning of Incan civilization.

Cotton is thus exceptional in world history in that it was already present in all of the major continental regions at the start of human civilization.  It did not spread via the Columbian Exchange of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries; Columbus noted several times in his journals the finely-made cotton cloth worn by the natives of the Caribbean islands he encountered and subsequently plundered.  Thus, cotton did not revolutionize agriculture or ecology via exposure to entirely new areas.  What occurred instead were shifts in the major regions of cotton cultivation and exchange; in fact, the only place that has “always” engaged in major cotton agriculture and cloth-making is northwest India.  From there, other centers eventually arose in southeastern, then central-eastern China, Egypt, North African and Iberia, and what was to become the south of the United States.


James Lewis, “Cotton,” in Encyclopedia of World Environmental History, ed. Shepard Krech III, J.R. McNeill, Carolyn Merchant (NY: Routledge).

D. Schlingloff, “Cotton-Manufacture in Ancient India,” Journal of Economic and Social History of the Orient, Vol. 17, No. 1, (March, 1974).

Stephen Yafa, Big Cotton: How a Humble Fiber Created Fortunes, Wrecked Civilizations, and Put America on the Map (NY: Viking, 2005).