The Nilotic Meroitic state, in what is now the Sudan, existed from the late fourth century BC until the mid fourth century AD. It has come to be regarded in recent years as an African segmentary state with a prestige-goods economy, less centralised than, for example, Egypt, with direct control by the ruling family diminished outside the Shendi Reach (central Sudan). Outbound trade from its capital Meroe included ebony, elephants, gold, iron, ivory and ostrich feathers. Trade routes criss-crossed the desert and extended down the Nile river to Greco-Roman Egypt, as well as through Red Sea ports to several Middle Eastern destinations including Egypt. Using the southern and southeastern reaches of the Meroitic state as a case study, I argue that to conceptualise the frontier peripheries of early states as borders is to misunderstand their internal dynamics (movements of people, fluid social networks and regional exchange systems). Each region had its own distinctive form of power relations. Examining how communities in these frontier zones were constituted, inscribed their identities in the landscape and facilitated trade in relation to the core of the Meroitic state in the Shendi Reach draws attention to the fluidity and continual renegotiation of state–pastoral relations.