Prestige goods, in various combinations and permutations, feature prominently in anthropological and archaeological templates of the emergence of social inequality and early state formation in premodern societies. In Africa, discussion of the contribution of prestige goods to the evolution of cultural behaviours such as class distinction and statehood has been conducted primarily through theoretical lenses that allocate significant weight to the proceeds of external long distance trade. The major outcome is that archaeologists have rarely paused to evaluate not just the definition of prestige goods but also the congruity between global ‘universals’ and African ‘particularities’. Using empirical evidence from the southern African historical and archaeological records, this paper seeks to evaluate the concept of prestige goods and to assess their contribution to the evolution of Iron Age (AD 200–1900) communities of different time periods, from locally centred positions. It reveals that the distribution, use and deposition of exotic imports in southern Africa is not compatible with the pattern suggested by the prestige goods model, and points towards their valuation as embedded within situational contexts of meaning. In fact, hinterland elites controlled neither the source nor the distribution of exotic goods from producer regions, making them a volatile source of power and prestige. While local elites used exotic imports when available, and imposed taxes on their citizens—payable in both local and external goods—land, cattle, religion and individual entrepreneurship were far more predictable and stable sources of prestige, wealth and power. This provides the basis for reassessing the development of complexity in the region and potentially contributes towards global debates on the impact of long-distance trade in the development of complex states.