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Early copper coins from an African trading empire found in Australia
May 28, 2013 7:43 AM   Subscribe

The history of people finding Australia goes a little something like this: Aboriginal Australians separated from a migration out of Africa into Asia about 70,000 years, and Australian archaeological sites have proof of humans going back 50,000 years. Jump ahead to 1606, when there were two European voyages that made landfall and charted portions of Australia. First was Willem Janszoon's voyage in late February or early March of that year, and then Luís Vaz de Torres came a few months later. Abel Jansen Tasman was the first European to come across Tasmania, and between 1642 and 1646, his crew charted the Australian coast, more or less (Google auto-translation, original page). Then of course, there was James Cook's 1770 voyage. With all these dates in mind, how did five copper coins from an African sultanate that collapsed in the early 1500s (Google books) end up on an uninhabited island in the Northern Territory of present-day Australia?

In World War II, the Japanese bombed Darwin in 1942. By 1944, the uninhabited Wessel Islands had become a strategic position to help protect the Australian mainland. Maurie Isenberg was an Australian soldier stationed on one of the islands to man a radar station. He spent his spare time fishing on the beaches, and on one such day, he discovered a handful of coins in the sand. He didn't know anything about them, but he pocketed them, and placed them in a tin.

Isenberg forgot about the coins for a few decades, until he rediscovered them in 1979 and sent them to a museum to be identified. Four were from the Dutch East India Company, from the century before James Cook made his way to Australia. The other five were copper coins from the Kilwa sultanate, the first such coins to produced in sub-Saharan Africa. They were never in use beyond the immediate locality of East Africa, and only one has ever been found elsewhere, in Oman.

The Kilwa sultanate was founded in the 10th century by a Persian prince and was centered around Kilwa Kisiwani, an island off of modern-day Tanzania. At its peak, it was a prosperous trading center, prominent on the east coast of Africa. The sultanate was fragmented by the early 1500s, when the Portuguese arrived to set up trading agreements with the sultanate. Initially rebuked, the Portuguese returned with to force a deal. The Portuguese were not the end for Kilwa, but another crack in the crumbling structure, which broke into pieces that became their own states. The ruins of Kilwa Kisiwani are currently a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

In 1979, Isenberg drew a map of the location where he found the coins. The map and coins were not investigated until Australian-born Ian McIntosh, currently a professor at Purdue University, started looking into the mystery. McIntosh will return to Australia, armed with Isenberg's map, and in partnership with the senior Aboriginal custodians for the Wessel Islands.
posted by filthy light thief (84 comments total) 85 users marked this as a favorite

 
What an awesome post. Thanks, filthy light thief, know what I'll be doing for the rest of the day!
posted by WidgetAlley at 8:00 AM on May 28, 2013 [2 favorites]


It's possible that they all landed there in the same pocket, but I'm intensely curious to see the results of the upcoming expedition.
posted by Devils Rancher at 8:02 AM on May 28, 2013


Some speculation is that they were washed on shore from a ship wreck, but there's also the myth in the Indigenous community that hidden in a cave on certain island is a secret stash of coins, weapons and untold treasurers.

Either way, given the rarity of the coins, whatever the path from Kilwa Kisiwani to Australia, it'll be an interesting story.
posted by filthy light thief at 8:05 AM on May 28, 2013


This post kicks ass. Should be the beginning to an Indiana Jones movie.
posted by surrendering monkey at 8:12 AM on May 28, 2013 [5 favorites]


With all these dates in mind, how did five copper coins from an African sultanate that collapsed in the early 1500s (Google books) end up on an uninhabited island in the Northern Territory of present-day Australia?

Cheng Ho comes to mind. See Swahili Coast histories (links on request etc previously)
posted by infini at 8:12 AM on May 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


The cultures associated with Indian Ocean Arab traders always seemed oddly compelling to me. There's a history museum in Zanzibar that's probably my favorite 'local' history museum ever. Also Zanzibari music is nuts.
posted by midmarch snowman at 8:13 AM on May 28, 2013 [5 favorites]


Where'd you get those coins?

King Arthur: We found them.

1st soldier with a keen interest in coins: Found them? In the Wessel islands? Those five copper coins come from from the Kilwa sultanate, the first such coins to produced in sub-Saharan Africa.

King Arthur: What do you mean?

1st soldier with a keen interest in coins: Well, those coins were never in use beyond the immediate locality of East Africa, and only one has ever been found elsewhere, in Oman.

King Arthur: The swallow may fly south with the sun or the house martin or the plover may seek warmer climes in winter, yet these are not strangers to our land?

1st soldier with a keen interest in coins: Are you suggesting coins migrate?

King Arthur: Not at all. They could be carried.

1st soldier with a keen interest in birds: What? A swallow carrying a coin?

King Arthur: It could grip it by the husk!
posted by three blind mice at 8:19 AM on May 28, 2013 [10 favorites]


Is it so far-fetched that explorers in the 17th or 18th Century might have collected antique coins?
posted by Sys Rq at 8:22 AM on May 28, 2013 [2 favorites]


They found roman coins in Kentucky that I doubt made it there from a fantastic (intentional) voyage. I wonder if these could be from a person with a similar (unlucky?) fate.

Did Africans Discover Australia?

Zheng He would have been there about a 100 years before if speculators are correct.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 8:22 AM on May 28, 2013


Didn't he reach the New World back then too, before Amerigo?
posted by infini at 8:25 AM on May 28, 2013


Did Africans Discover Australia?

Well, in one way or another the answer to that is "yes," right?
posted by yoink at 8:32 AM on May 28, 2013 [13 favorites]


The crazy part of this story to me is the guy found them in 1944, forgot about them until 1979, sent them to a museum, then they're forgotten again until 2013. I can understand how the guy who found them might not appreciate the significance, but you'd think in 1979 some museum would be a little curious.

There's this folk theory about human history that each continent was isolate, separate, with no cross-communication. But when we look hard we find evidence of occasional interaction. Ie, the Norse coming to Greenland and most likely Eastern Canada in 1000. Or the possibility of Indian explorers coming to Australia in 2200 BC. It's really not hard to believe that the occasional boat went too far and ended up somewhere else, is it?

Vaguely related: I'm reading Vaka Moana now, a lovely book about Polynesian migration and colonization. That's a case of deliberate action, loading up the canoe and striking out for new land with technologies that let you find that land even if it's below the horizon. Still, an amazing monument to what humans can do with very limited transportation tools.
posted by Nelson at 8:36 AM on May 28, 2013 [2 favorites]


Neat, but I'll hold my excitement until the archaeological dig finds some corroborating evidence. This isn't near as ludicrous as Roman coins/Hebrew inscriptions/Norse runestones found in the Americas, but unexpected artifacts in unexpected places require investigation of their context. Particular with such a solid back story as "I forgot about them for a few decades, here's a treasure map."
posted by Panjandrum at 8:38 AM on May 28, 2013 [3 favorites]


How, indeed?

Brllliant post.
posted by spitbull at 8:39 AM on May 28, 2013


This is highly relevant to my interests. If I may be so bold as to rant a little bit ...

Archaeology in Australia tends to be stuck in two mindsets. On the one hand, prehistoric archaeology mostly tries to push the original settlement of the continent back further and further in time. Partly because it's sexy for funding bodies, but also partly because understanding the depth of time that the place has been settled allows us to try to understand the archaeolog of the intervening time a bit better. And then on the other hand, it checks out the post-1788 history of a colonizing power. Everything in the middle gets forgotten.

Forgotten in that whole middle 50000 years or so is a bunch of things that have incredible importance in situations like this, such as the fact that the archipelagos north of Australia were the original home of long-distance sailing technology, 30000 years ago. Given the technology, the proximity, and the weather patterns, visits to Australia from the archipelagos to the north are conjectured, but as of yet there's no direct evidence for the fact (that I've heard of). However, as early as the 1700s there are known to have been regular and influential contacts between Autralia by the Macassan people from Sulawesi. I've heard (in a pers.comm sort of way) that the dates go back even further, but there's just such a limited amount of research and excavation going on in the NT to begin with that there aren't more than a handful of people even thinking about the topic right now.

So, in short, these coins aren't much of anything in any way, really. Imagining for now that the coins didn't arrive on some shipwreck and that they were brought to the shore intentionally, the people involved in creating and using the coins clearly didn't have any effect on the local populace, certainly not like the Macassans had! Was there cultural contact? Was there exchange of goods or words or the like? Not that we know of. At this point, all the coins show is that people with boats may have landed in Australia sometime in the early part of the last millennia, but this wasn't really a matter of much debate anyways. Well, not really among folks who have studied things like Austronesian sailing technologies (but they don't get out much, which is a shame, because they're fascinating people!).

The context of these coins in the current prehistory of Australia aside, this sort of thing really gets up my grill. 50000+ years of prehistory, and the only time we can get people interested in Australian archaeology is when it involves some other "civilized" group from an outside territory. I have similar experience with work in Polynesia, and I think archaeologists working with indigenous peoples around the world can attest to the same thing. Indigenous peoples' pasts aren't interesting to the wider world, except when they brush up against and are swept up in the rush of modernity. What's more interesting, the dynamics of migration and change and adaptation and cultural change as people learned about and moved into and across an arid and harsh environment, or the singular point in time when a few coins were dropped on a beach? "The coins!!" (auuuuuuuuuugh).

Sorry sorry sorry sorry I'll climb down off my hobby horse. My beers are almost done, anyway. IANYA, but from my professional point of view, these coins probably aren't gonna add much to Australian archaeology (and it's, of course, curious that Australian Geographic would bring in a researcher from the states who is basically unknown in Austrlian archaeology and whose CV shows no publications that you'd be citing if you wanted to be doing any research in the field ...) and I'll be pretty goddamned surprised if anything of note comes out of this.

And even after all that, of course, I haven't even addressed the question of whether these coins were planted at the site or claimed to have been found somewhere they weren't. We're currently talking about a handful of coins with a provenience that reads "supposedly found 70 years ago on a beach somewhere near this X on a map." It's hardly the sort of thing you'd stake a research proposal on ... and the fact that McIntosh is doing so makes me wonder if he's just looking for a nice tax-deductible reason to get back to Australia and do some work.

And if that's the case: Ian, buddy pal mate, drop me a MeMail. I'm sure we can find you more respectable work down here than this.
posted by barnacles at 8:41 AM on May 28, 2013 [63 favorites]


As to the mystery itself, there are quite a few relatively unexciting ways to account for the facts as we have them: Isenberg could be lying about how he came by the coins, for example. It is also the case that all kinds of odd coins circulated in global trade in past centuries. Merchants had to be able to calculate value equivalents for a dizzying array of coinage, much of it obsolete and no longer minted in its country of origin. It's not too hard to imagine a sequence of events that gets these coins up into circulation in the Mediterranean or subcontinental trading worlds. The hardest part of this mystery to account for is that there would be a group of these coins all together in the same spot--but that strikes me as a mystery that's not much lessened if we imagine contemporary Chinese or African voyages of exploration, either.
posted by yoink at 8:44 AM on May 28, 2013 [2 favorites]


*gazes adoringly at barnacles, esp after last sentence*
posted by infini at 8:47 AM on May 28, 2013 [4 favorites]


They found roman coins in Kentucky...

Behold, a whole network of rabbit holes: archaeological outliers, 14 examples of out-of-place/time artifacts, including four instances of really old coins found in the Ohio and Kentucky.
posted by filthy light thief at 8:49 AM on May 28, 2013 [9 favorites]


Great post but are there any images of these coins that aren't like 35X50 px?
posted by Halogenhat at 8:49 AM on May 28, 2013


Zheng He would have been there about a 100 years before...

Chinese traders came to my mind immediately as well. From the Google Books link on Kilwa:
"The ruling class lived in stone houses with indoor plumbing, wore silk and fine cotton, and ate off Chinese porcelain."
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 8:49 AM on May 28, 2013 [4 favorites]


CheeseDigestsAll, there doesn't need to be a direction connection from the Kilwa Sultanate to China or vis-versa for Chinese porcelain to get to Kilwa. Such goods could be traded a dozen times to travel from China to the African coast.

For what it's worth, the current wiki page on the Kilwa Sultanate states (without citation) that "Kilwan pilots had a reputation for extraordinary sailing accuracy. The Portuguese marveled at their navigational instruments, particularly their latitude staves, which they considered superior to their own."
posted by filthy light thief at 8:59 AM on May 28, 2013 [2 favorites]


There's this folk theory about human history that each continent was isolate, separate, with no cross-communication.

That's not a folk theory. That's a very firm impression given by classes like "History of China" or "History of Europe" that treats them vertically, with no horizontal interaction.

50000+ years of prehistory, and the only time we can get people interested in Australian archaeology is when it involves some other "civilized" group from an outside territory.

Untrue in my case. I read some travel book about Australia that mentioned aboriginal history and I wanted to know more. Too bad, there's nothing out there!
posted by DU at 9:01 AM on May 28, 2013


Halogenhat, the source of the images seems to be this Purdue webpage, where the coin image isn't very high resolution. This image is a bit larger, but still not very large.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:03 AM on May 28, 2013


Great post but are there any images of these coins that aren't like 35X50 px?

Click through on the image on this page.
posted by DreamerFi at 9:04 AM on May 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


Direct link to the coin images, from DreamerFi's link. Thanks!
posted by filthy light thief at 9:05 AM on May 28, 2013


The secret sauce for this particuluar plate of beans is right before your eyes. He found nine coins, of which "[f]our were from the Dutch East India Company, from the century before James Cook made his way to Australia. The other five were copper coins from the Kilwa sultanate. . . ."

how did five copper coins from an African sultanate that collapsed in the early 1500s (Google books) end up on an uninhabited island in the Northern Territory of present-day Australia?

More than likely, they were carried there by a white man, sometime in the 340 years between 1602 (founding of The Dutch East India Company) and 1942. Sorry.
 
posted by Herodios at 9:07 AM on May 28, 2013 [5 favorites]


Haha, I was totally waiting for barnacles to weigh in-- thank you, as always.

Given that they were found with the Dutch East India Co. coins, is it possible that they were just still in circulation/used as bullion? That's one of the ways Roman coins remained in circulation for centuries as far east (Sri Lanka and India) as they did, and I've heard anecdotal evidence that farmers during various World Wars resorted to using the coins churned up by farming as actual coinage.
posted by jetlagaddict at 9:08 AM on May 28, 2013 [3 favorites]


Is it so far-fetched that explorers in the 17th or 18th Century might have collected antique coins?

Seriously, just becasue the coins are a 1000 years old does not mean that they have been in that place, in situ for 1000 years. People carry things around.

They found roman coins in Kentucky that I doubt made it there from a fantastic (intentional) voyage. I wonder if these could be from a person with a similar (unlucky?) fate.

Again, I don't doubt the plausibility of Roman coins being found in Kentucky. I do, however, doubt they were actually brought there by romans anywhere near the time they were minted. Probably more like "Hey, pesky redskins, here's some shiny stuff in trade for the land we were going to throw you off of, anyway. Wait. Dag nabit, Jim, what you got in yer pocket? I lost the beads."
posted by Devils Rancher at 9:11 AM on May 28, 2013


Given that they were found with the Dutch East India Co. coins, is it possible that they were just still in circulation/used as bullion?


There is evidence predating written history that copper was traded extensively across Europe, the Mideast, North Africa and Central Asia for other goods like shells, food, cloth, wine, slaves and livestock. There is also evidence that the copper trade ultimately drove the exploration for and trade of other metals like tin and lead – on its own, copper is quite soft, but in combination with other metals like tin it makes the much stronger, much more useful bronze. Accordingly, bronze weapons, armor and tools had great value above and beyond the copper content.

Given the nature of the barter economies, however, it’s hard to characterize the value of copper as money or a trade good. Nevertheless, we know from historical records that 1 deben of copper (90g) was worth 1 kit (9g) of silver. We also know that a 58kg sack of wheat traded for 2 debens, and with wages for an unskilled laborer running around 200kg of grain per month, that suggests that a day’s wage was worth something in the order of 31g of copper – a price that works out to about a $0.25 in today’s copper prices. Other known prices include 5 deben (450g, or almost 1 pound) for a linen shirt and 140 deben for a cow. As is often the case, then, manufactured goods cost significantly more in the days before mass production [see Four Little Known Factors Driving the Price of Copper].

It’s also worth noting that copper was more valuable to the Egyptians than it is to us today. In Ancient Egypt, a unit of copper was worth 1/100 that of silver, while today’s ratio is 1:120.
Link

And the deben is still used as a word for a bucket size of [potatoes, coal, peas, maize, etc] in East AFrica today
posted by infini at 9:14 AM on May 28, 2013 [4 favorites]


> Behold, a whole network of rabbit holes: archaeological outliers

Just an FYI, for anyone perusing that site, the Econ professor who runs it has some definite leanings towards the Americas as being filled with Eurasian/Africans all the damn time in antiquity. He's even been running a years long argument over the authenticity of the "paleo-Hebrew" Bat Creek Stone. He's fine when he sticks to the facts, but he'll also throw in statements like "The beginning of Micipsa's rule coincided with the final seige of adjacent Carthage by Rome during 149-146 B.C., and was a time when Carthaginian refugees might have been eager to flee from the long reach of Rome" as kind of nudge nudge wink wink to imply that a group of Phoenicians somehow ended up in Ohio.
posted by Panjandrum at 9:17 AM on May 28, 2013 [4 favorites]


I could send out the crackpot siren to my TPWD archeologist buddies, but it hardly seems necessary. (One of 'em put the hard smack-down on the "Mayan temple in the s.e. US crackpot thing a while back.)
posted by Devils Rancher at 9:19 AM on May 28, 2013


I saw the professor's site when I was looking for a source for my statement above and decided for the reasons Panjandrum cited, to leave it. Having seen the coins in the museum I know they exist, but I wasn't so sure about the prof's site. My interpritation as seems to be more accepted, is that the coins washed up (with or without an ancient mariner) and wound up in the hands of some native americans and were subsequently traded about as trinkets or such. Being shiny and having figurative pictures on them might have made them extra special baubbles.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 9:24 AM on May 28, 2013 [2 favorites]


And the deben is still used as a word for a bucket size of [potatoes, coal, peas, maize, etc] in East AFrica today

Sounds a lot like the liang/ryo/tael in east asia!
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 9:26 AM on May 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


Here! Here! Barnacles!!!

What always gets me about this is how dismissive most contemporary writers are of the whole Baijinii/Djanggawul song cycle thing. The Yolngu keep singin it, we just keep putting our fingers in our ears and yelling "nah nah nah nah".

As in this.. "The Colonisation of Australia Prior to European Settlement". It's a .pdf, you'll need to scroll through to chapter 3 and it's distinctly in the dismissive vein.

Anyway..
posted by Ahab at 9:28 AM on May 28, 2013 [6 favorites]


IANYA either, and I haven't read all the articles (thanks, FLT), but a couple of further points --

1. if the coins are both identifiable (i.e. in at least ok condition) and clustered together on a beach, then it strikes me as unlikely they have been on a beach for very long. Beaches are pretty abrasive and very dispersive, generally speaking. Depends on wave energy etc, but low wave energy beaches tend to be muddy, not sandy, and less attractive to loll around on. I suppose they could have eroded out of the shoreline very recently prior to discovery but in that case one might expect more of the same in the cutbank.

2. Austronesian speaking people were the first to arrive in Madagascar, doing so by at least 2000 years ago. While some might believe in a straight shot across the Indian Ocean, it seems more likely to me they hopped their way around South Asia. If they were doing this 2000 years ago, then it seems likely they could have done so 1000 years ago, or 500, or whatever. This doesn't even speak to the idea of down the line trade of such items so much as the conditions were present for direct procurement originating from somewhere in the general Sunda area. So, a kind of Indian Ocean "World System" I suppose has deeper roots that predate colonialism.

Also, I recently saw a lecture by Howard Morphy and he was fairly explicit there was sustained and important contact across late prehistory between Sulawesi/eastern Indonesia and the Northern Territory - based on oral tradition as well as some features of rock art if I recall correctly.

As for why there might be limited archaeological evidence of pre-Colonial Indonesian-Australian culture contact I'd leave that up to the estimable barnacles.
posted by Rumple at 9:34 AM on May 28, 2013 [3 favorites]


Brilliant post- thank you!
posted by Bwithh at 9:34 AM on May 28, 2013


The 10th Regiment of Foot : Exactly, and add "kati" or "catty" to the list
posted by infini at 9:34 AM on May 28, 2013


This is the best possible post for a rainy sick day, thank you so much.
posted by elizardbits at 9:38 AM on May 28, 2013


The object statement at the Powerhouse Museum, written in 1982, suggests that "It is likely then that these Kilwa coins are relics of an early Portuguese exploration around the coast of Northern Australia."
posted by islander at 9:54 AM on May 28, 2013 [4 favorites]


Please pay no attention to that funny looking man with a blue police box.
posted by LastOfHisKind at 9:58 AM on May 28, 2013 [2 favorites]


islander, thank you so much for that link! I found a single coin, but the page didn't have enough information for me to be sure they were the same coins in this discussion.
posted by filthy light thief at 10:16 AM on May 28, 2013


Please pay no attention to that funny looking man with a blue police box.
posted by LastOfHisKind


eponysterical.
posted by filthy light thief at 10:17 AM on May 28, 2013 [4 favorites]


DU: "50000+ years of prehistory, and the only time we can get people interested in Australian archaeology is when it involves some other "civilized" group from an outside territory.

Untrue in my case. I read some travel book about Australia that mentioned aboriginal history and I wanted to know more. Too bad, there's nothing out there
".

DU, there's lots out there! If you'd like a book that covers a wide range of Australia prehistory, a good starting place would be Hiscock's "Archaeology of Ancient Australia". The book does a good job as a broad overview, but it does get a bit editorial at times. Hiscock seemed to be trying to make some of his viewpoints very clear and could maybe have been a bit more subtle ...

But, as far as a good general entry that doesn't get too bogged down in details and yet manages to give a nice skim across 50 millennia, quite nice! I believe it was written with non-archaeologists (or undergrads taking their first course) in mind.
posted by barnacles at 10:31 AM on May 28, 2013 [4 favorites]


Ahab: "What always gets me about this is how dismissive most contemporary writers are of the whole Baijinii/Djanggawul song cycle thing. The Yolngu keep singin it, we just keep putting our fingers in our ears and yelling "nah nah nah nah"."

Ahab, I hadn't heard of the Baijini song cycle before, so thanks for sharing the PDF. I'll have a squiz at that tomorrow. Based on first-hand experiences and reading other's work, I believe that there's a lot of truth in oral traditions passed down in societies that didn't have writing.

Regarding the presence/absence of external artefacts that might be expected from trade with indigenous Australians, I just remembered an interesting point from a seminar I attended recently. The speaker showed a quote from one of the officers on Cook's ship who wrote that they couldn't convince any of the people onshore to trade with them, and that when they demonstrated the trade goods that had gone over so well in the Pacific, the Aboriginal people in Botany Bay just shrugged and moved on. His point was aimed at shoring up a "Noble Savage" myth, but it's an interesting anecdot because we tend to expect that people, when presented with an "upgrade" of material goods, will always go for it. But if you're satisfying all your needs and life's pretty good, who needs it? Although I'm pushing ethnographic analogy a few thouosand kilometers northwest-ward, it's not beyond the realm of possibility that similar attitudes were going on in areas where Macassan and northern boat contacts would have been made.
posted by barnacles at 10:45 AM on May 28, 2013 [5 favorites]


The crazy part of this story to me is the guy found them in 1944, forgot about them until 1979, sent them to a museum, then they're forgotten again until 2013. I can understand how the guy who found them might not appreciate the significance, but you'd think in 1979 some museum would be a little curious.

Unfortunately, this happens *all* the time. And that's for significant things their own folks find, not things of dubious providence brought in by Joe Random Noncurator.

The simplest reason is resources: time and money. No matter how significant the find, *someone* has to come up with time and money to investigate. That time could include negotiating going someplace you aren't wanted, or collecting more evidence to pinpoint exactly where you need to be, or just setting up the logistics required to have a successful expedition. It could take years or more. I'm casually acquainted with some folks who dug several pristine WW2 aircraft out from under a few tens of meters of ice. They new *exactly* where they were and *exactly* what they were dealing with, but it took decades to put everything in place to get them out.

Just as important is, frankly, interest. No matter how "interesting" something might be, someone at the museum has to be interested enough to devote personal time to that particular item (or track down someone else with the interest, time & money to do something with it). When those coins came in, someone knew enough to identify them, and might have been the resident expert in ancient coinage. But he may have also said "neat...haven't seen anything quite like that, but my current interest is Chinese bronze coins of the Zhou dynasty, and there's only so many hours in the day, so I'll just put you in a box on the shelf until I get a chance to take a look at you...". Fast forward 44 years, and someone found some time. P.S. - This happens *all* the time in Paleontology, apparently. I regularly read papers announcing some new and interesting observation of some fossil, and find a notation to the effect "specimen X was collected by Dr. Old Timer in 1954 in SomeDesert, Colorado, and held in the Y University collection".
posted by kjs3 at 10:48 AM on May 28, 2013 [7 favorites]


His point was aimed at shoring up a "Noble Savage" myth, but it's an interesting anecdot because we tend to expect that people, when presented with an "upgrade" of material goods, will always go for it.

I was thinking that they could have seen similar items in the past from the Dutch traders/explorers (or earlier groups), and weren't impressed with the goods from outsiders.


kjs3, thanks for your comment, it confirmed my thoughts. I figured that museums, like many scientific institutions, aren't flush with cash and free time. I remember visiting the back rooms of the (relatively) small local natural history museum as a kid, and being amazed by all the stuff that wasn't on display.
posted by filthy light thief at 10:55 AM on May 28, 2013


Rumple: 1. if the coins are both identifiable (i.e. in at least ok condition) and clustered together on a beach, then it strikes me as unlikely they have been on a beach for very long."

Great point. I hadn't even considered the taphonomic conditions we're talking about here! As an anecdotal comparison point, during some fieldwork in Tonga I found a British coin from about 1900-1910 on a lagoon shore. Less than a century old and it was corroded to the point that I couldn't make out the date and could barely tell that it was British.

"As for why there might be limited archaeological evidence of pre-Colonial Indonesian-Australian culture contact I'd leave that up to the estimable barnacles"

In part I would turn again to the ethnographic analogy I just used above.

But in addition, I think we might also be facing a dearth of evidence at the moment. Most of the archaeological personpower in NT is tied up in more centrally located mining related activities, and while I haven't read their heritage legislation lately, I seem to recall that it's not nearly as strong as Victoria or NSW.

In fact, I know someone who was going to do a PhD specifically on trying to locate, excavate, and investigate Macassan contact sites in the NT, but she ended up changing her focus to another topic because while hiring a boat to sail to remote spots along the coast conducive to investigation sounds like a wonderful way to spend a PhD, it was also far beyond the possible budget she could get with grants. But, I imagine someone will crack this nut sooner or later (if they're not doing it now!).
posted by barnacles at 10:59 AM on May 28, 2013 [2 favorites]


Before I retire, I'd like to add: great post, filthy light thief! Thanks for putting together such a comprehensive look at the situation!
posted by barnacles at 11:03 AM on May 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


@filthy light thief: If that experience was impactful, might I suggest you look into the undisplayed collections of the Smithsonian. Apparently, only 1 or 2 percent is ever on display, and much of it has never been displayed.
posted by kjs3 at 11:10 AM on May 28, 2013


barnacles and others, thanks for the thanks.

As I put this together, I learned more about the context of the coins, and was tempted to delve further into the Kilwa society, but figure that's another post for another time. It seemed that all these little posts on the "Amazing Old Coins Implying Africans Traveled to Australia Before the Dutch or Captain Cook" were all getting parts of a bigger story. Some skipped over the Dutch voyages and claimed Cook was the first European to come across Australia, others didn't detail why Maurie Isenberg was on the island during WWII in the first place, and none except the Purdue article mentioned the rarity of the coins.

I was thinking of waiting a few months to see if anything comes from the July expedition, but I figure there's the necessary time for write-up and actually publishing something, so here we are, with an incomplete story. Maybe there'll be a follow-up, or nothing of importance will come of this, and it'll be added to the list of curious finds.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:29 AM on May 28, 2013 [2 favorites]


I remember visiting the back rooms of the (relatively) small local natural history museum as a kid, and being amazed by all the stuff that wasn't on display.

For you, I shall FPP within a few days, of a long and linkedly post on the Victorian Era National Museum in Calcutta, British India.
posted by infini at 11:39 AM on May 28, 2013 [3 favorites]


*looks dejectedly at clock and calender*
posted by infini at 11:40 AM on May 28, 2013


The accompanying Dutch East Indies coins makes the Chinese connection unlikely, but it does suggest possible Sunda-Australia trade routes/contact. Which really wouldn't be surprising, the odd thing would be if there had been no contact at all for 50,000 years between Australia and islands full of sea-going peoples just a few hundred miles away. Question is, was it pre-colonial trade routes that the coins seeped into via contact in Sunda with the Portuguese, or pre-Cook Portuguese exploration? Or possibly a Portuguese or Dutch shipwreck that the coins washed up from and then were later eroded out of dune deposit? The Portuguese sailed around and mapped a lot more areas than they actually landed on -- are there any pre-Cook Portuguese maps that accurately show Australia?
posted by tavella at 11:41 AM on May 28, 2013


If that experience was impactful, might I suggest you look into the undisplayed collections of the Smithsonian. Apparently, only 1 or 2 percent is ever on display, and much of it has never been displayed.

I spent a summer volunteering in an extremely obscure department in Natural History and yes, there is a stunning amount that isn't on display. Some of it really isn't display quality, though, or too fragile, and the specimen collections are I think more useful as a research/reference collection...That and I can't even imagine how enormous the building would need to be in order to house that many display cases! (The library/research staff should also get full props for responding to requests for articles and follow-ups on their collections holdings.)

It really was incredible what would turn up: tripping over triceratops skulls, poking through Antarctic fossils, the occasional peak into the realms of archaeology.
posted by jetlagaddict at 11:41 AM on May 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


*turns over and goes to sleep*
posted by infini at 11:46 AM on May 28, 2013


Great point. I hadn't even considered the taphonomic conditions we're talking about here! As an anecdotal comparison point, during some fieldwork in Tonga I found a British coin from about 1900-1910 on a lagoon shore. Less than a century old and it was corroded to the point that I couldn't make out the date and could barely tell that it was British.

Being earlier coins, they might have higher lead and/or tin content in the alloy and thus higher bronze disease resistance? Just speculating here...

It's like they made a marine bronze or brass almost by accident because of earlier casting technology.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 11:57 AM on May 28, 2013


Did Africans Discover Australia?
Zheng He would have been there about a 100 years before if speculators are correct.
Australians would have been there about 40,000 years before, of course. But anyway:

Are there any such "speculators" other than Gavin Menzies, and people who haven't yet realized that Gavin Menzies is full of shit?
posted by Flunkie at 12:14 PM on May 28, 2013


The simplest reason is resources: time and money. No matter how significant the find, *someone* has to come up with time and money to investigate.

There's a burnt-rock midden on the bluff directly above the deepest cave in the state (Texas), and a 3-foot high pile of debitage at the bottom of the 80-foot entrance pit, which is about 30 feet in to a cave with pictographs, a large metate on a shelf rock inside the entrance, and an abundance of various lithic artifacts scattered for a 1/4 mile in every direction, and a dig has never been conducted there. My buddy the archeologist who pointed all this out on a caving trip said, with a sigh, "There's so many sites like this that'll never get looked at..."
posted by Devils Rancher at 12:20 PM on May 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


Sys Rq: "Is it so far-fetched that explorers in the 17th or 18th Century might have collected antique coins?"

This. Dutch and other traders usually stopped over in South Africa on the way to the spice islands, a route that took them right by the west coast of Australia. There is a well known incident in 1629 involving the Batavia in which the Dutch East Indian trader shipwrecked on Houtman Abrolhos, there was a bloody mutiny among the survivors (scallywag seaman killing off the loyalists) and treasure and coin were scattered about. This was not the only trader to shipwreck on this particular island, and surely other islands around Australia have a similar known and unknown history over a nearly 200 year period of active spice trading (1600-1800), much less the 19th century merchant and whaling traffic which was even greater. Occum's Razor applies here.
posted by stbalbach at 12:28 PM on May 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


Are there any such "speculators" other than Gavin Menzies

True, there's plenty of speculation by those speculators, but seeing as they were known to be in Java, it doesn't seem like nearly such a jump to Darwin, but who the hell knows? Of course all this fawning over a clutch of coins is all a just flurry of speculation at this point.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 12:32 PM on May 28, 2013


In my search for other "speculative history" authors, I found the Wikipedia category: psuedohistorians, plus the related categories pseudoarchaeology and pseudohistory. Do with this what you will.
posted by filthy light thief at 1:34 PM on May 28, 2013


Speaking of forgotten history... look at any map of that side of the world. See that huge swath of islands stretching from Burma to Papua? Teeming with seafaring cultures, many of them very advanced technologically and militarily. (The Majapahit played both sides of a full-scale Mongol/Yuan invasion to cement their hold on empire, and then kicked the lot of them out of that part of the Indian Ocean. The list of military powers able to do that to Kublai Khan's empire is very, very small.)

These were thalassocracies - island hopping trade empires. One of history's enduring mysteries is why they never established themselves on the Austrailian continent. It was nearby, compared to their usual trade destinations in India and the Phillipines, and held abundant natural resources... yet they never got further south than West Papua.

Before I'd get all starry eyed about Cheng Ho and Zanzibar trade embassies, I'd ascribe it to lost or shipwrecked Srivijaya traders, who did travel as far afield as the Kilwa sultanate, acting as a trade link between Africa and China.
posted by Slap*Happy at 1:37 PM on May 28, 2013 [4 favorites]


Srivijaya and the hindu kingdoms of south east asia and eastern pacific - check.
posted by infini at 1:51 PM on May 28, 2013


Slap*Happy, I'd guess the reason is that other people were already established there and quite possibly weren't friendly. There's no reason to think that Australia didn't have a dense a population as it could support at the technology level available, and if the occasional trader that ventured south got a hostile reception, no trade route would develop and no motivation for colonization/conquest. It's still a little surprising that Australia remained so isolated for so long, given how easily you can island hop there with simple sailing technology, but as far as I know there's not been much sign of external gene flow in the Aboriginal population, or trade artifacts from other areas.

Over the last few years we've started to think of the Americas as in fact very intensely populated, that stretches we think of as eternal trackless wilderness were quite likely densely inhabited. I wonder to what extent that could have happened in Australia as well; I know that at least one area had a densely populated fish-farming society that was essentially entirely wiped out before being recorded, and I wonder what other ones vanished the same.

It wasn't until disease decimated the native North Americans that any sort of permanent foothold, whether trade or conquest, was able to be made in the Americas. The Polynesians made contact for long enough to acquire sweet potato and leave behind chickens but no genetic marks, the Norse were there for a few years but were driven out... maybe traders faced a dense and isolationist population and never could make any real progress. And then disease ran ahead of Western explorers and conquerors and left another 'mostly empty' continent to colonize.
posted by tavella at 2:06 PM on May 28, 2013 [2 favorites]


This might be of interest: Int'l Commerce, Snorkeling Camels, and The Indian Ocean Trade: Crash Course World History #18
posted by ersatz at 3:17 PM on May 28, 2013 [2 favorites]


If anyone is interested in a copy of the article "Kilwa-type coins from Songo Mnara, Tanzania: New finds and chronological implications," please let me know.
posted by jetlagaddict at 4:30 PM on May 28, 2013


This thing on the Makassar schooners is good. Brief legal article, but dense, with maps, details of trade goods, recent updates on finds in the Kimberly etc. Still carries the dubious Macknight c1700 date.
posted by Ahab at 4:43 PM on May 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


One thing this whole kerfuffle highlights to me, yet again, is how invested the Australian psyche/public has been for so many years in the idea that Captain Cook "discovered" Australia. I'm only 31, but that was 100% what I was taught in school, with a passing nod to Dampier and SFA about aborginals or anything (to be fair, this was in Sir Joh's QLD, in a rural area. Other states might have been different). It's amazing to me, how this investment in the myth of terra nullius and Cook's/the British Empire's role persisted 200 years after the fact, but then, my childhood was also the childhood of expo 88 (I mean wtf, I was a kid back then, but surely no one would be that stupid now) and later Mabo. I wonder what kids are getting taught now?
posted by smoke at 7:24 PM on May 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


Spent all my spare time today on the Bat Cave stone because eastern native mounds have always fascinated me. There are/were a bunch within a few miles of here. When I was a little child I pretended the mounds were dinosaur fossils yet to be discovered.
posted by maggieb at 7:44 PM on May 28, 2013


Slap*Happy: "These were thalassocracies - island hopping trade empires. One of history's enduring mysteries is why they never established themselves on the Austrailian continent. It was nearby, compared to their usual trade destinations in India and the Phillipines, and held abundant natural resources... yet they never got further south than West Papua."

Slap*Happy, you should see if a local library has a copy of Geoff Irwin's "Prehistoric Exploration and Colonisation of the Pacific", because I believe some of the early chapters touch on that question (though it's been a while since I read it last). Irwin is an able sailor and archaeologist, and so his books about ocean voyaging and exploration come with the added bonus that he ties them directly into first-hand knowledge of how difficult sailing can be.

In addition, I'd actually argue that Northern Australia probably didn't seem that attractive for the sailing cultures of Southeast Asia. The metal deposits that are being dug up today are all far, far inland in extremely arid and desolate environments, and the locals on shore wouldn't have had any metal to trade or to entice people to go farther inland. If you were keen on stone tools, the local stone wouldn't have offered much compared to the high-quality volcanics in the archipelagos to the north (some of the best obsidian in the world comes from the Bismarcks, for instance). No one on shore would have had any pottery, and I'm not even that sure that Australia soil would be too conducive to making high-quality pottery. And in much of Australia, there's not even good river access into the interior so you'd have to be doing it all on foot. Along the shore there'd be great fishing, to be sure, but why bother going so far from home for fish when you're living and sailing in a rich marine environment already?

And on top of that, all the sorts of spots where you'd be landing canoes and boats regularly on the north side of Australia also happen to be the places where giant saltwater crocodiles loooooove to hang out. Chomp chomp chomp

For people interested in pastoralism or farming, sure, parts of Australia -- in the south, mind you! -- would have been a great find. For people interested in large-scale mining, you'd first have to trudge a few hundred kilometers inland, but areas would have been a great find. But for thalassocracies (great word, by the way, thanks!) Australia would have probably seemed like a great big tease: sooooooo much land, and nothing to use it for!
posted by barnacles at 10:13 PM on May 28, 2013 [3 favorites]


tavella: "The Polynesians made contact for long enough to acquire sweet potato and leave behind chickens but no genetic marks ..."

Watch this space. I believe there's going to be some fascinating research published in the next couple years about an island off the shore of Chile and some work being done there.
posted by barnacles at 10:15 PM on May 28, 2013 [3 favorites]


Maybe the pygmies brought them with them.
posted by unliteral at 11:25 PM on May 28, 2013


Excellent and fascinating post. Thanks, filthy light thief.
posted by homunculus at 1:55 AM on May 29, 2013


barnacles: Can you tell us any more? It's not fair to tease like that!

There was recently this paper, but I haven't heard anything else...
posted by claudius at 2:34 AM on May 29, 2013


One thing this whole kerfuffle highlights to me, yet again, is how invested the Australian psyche/public has been for so many years in the idea that Captain Cook "discovered" Australia.

In searching for information for this post, I read a couple news articles with references to Cook "discovering" Australia. Even in the frickin' Purdue article says:
The coins may even touch upon the arrival of Europeans in Australia, as British explorer James Cook is credited with being the first European to have encountered the country’s eastern coastline in 1770.
It's hard to put an end to pervasive misinformation.

On that note, I should point out that Luís Vaez de Torres' voyage didn't result in any additional Europeans setting foot on Australia, but they probably got close enough to see Cape York. Dirk Hartog (also referred to as Dirck Hartog, Dierick Hartochsz, or Theodoric Hertoge) was the second person to lead a voyage to make landfall on Australia, who left behind a plate (easier to read copy on this page).

For more fun reading on Dutch exploration and trading mysteries, here's a page on theories about Dutch ship wrecks, including a bit about the Hartog plate, and the first "graffiti" in Australia (with some hokey photo editing).
posted by filthy light thief at 7:21 AM on May 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


claudius: "barnacles: Can you tell us any more? It's not fair to tease like that!

There was recently this paper, but I haven't heard anything else...
"

Ooops, sorry, not meaning to tease, I simply didn't think anything was out there to link to (my laziness: your tease!). The work I'm thinking of isn't the PNAS report, but is work being done by a group led by Dr. Matisoo-Smith from the University of Otago, New Zealand: "... a project involving both archaeological excavations and ancient DNA analysis of human remains from Isla Mocha, an island located 30km from the Chilean coast." A longer, PR-ish article about the work can be found here, and covers most of the bases I learned of when I saw Matisoo-Smith give a talk a few months back. Not much else at the moment, but I think they're all in the lab or in the field, so the "watch this space" comment was just meant to say "be patient; stuff's in the pipe!"
posted by barnacles at 10:05 AM on May 29, 2013 [3 favorites]


My favourite VOC wreck is the Batavia. The first recorded wreck on WA's west coast. June 1629.

Not only because it's a rollicking good yarn of mutiny, shipwreck, isolation, religious mania, massacre, cannibalism, inter-island warfare, survival, an epic open ocean voyage in a tiny boat, and eventual punishment.

But also because a few years ago, while researching a history of a single house and going through the diaries of the first owners, I came across a lock of hair. First haircut type thing. It was 103 or so years old, but very visibly still soft and beautiful. I couldn't help but reach out my white cotton gloved hand and stroke it.

That hair belonged to Henrietta Drake-Brockman, whose research led to the rediscovery of the Batavia wreck in 1963.

(There's also just a little bit in that Batavia link about Aboriginal descendants of Dutch shipwreck survivors or mutineers. And yeah, I know, the hair thing's a bit weird and creepy. It just gets that way in the archives sometimes..)
posted by Ahab at 10:39 AM on May 29, 2013 [3 favorites]


This thread exemplifies why I love MetaFilter. I've gotten so much out of the comments.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:09 AM on May 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


Ahab, just FPP your comment already, please?
posted by infini at 11:46 AM on May 29, 2013 [3 favorites]


Couple of other contact dating things.

ANU already has (had?) a project. Link is to the google results page, and anyone who's interested can take it from there.

There's also this pdf from Griffith (which may be part of the same project?). Once you get past the bees wax paintings of Makassan praus (which suggest dates in the 1500s) it seems pretty definitive in pushing dates on other materials back 800-1000 odd years.

And many many thanks Filthy and everyone else, this has both expanded my knowledge and left me with stuff to ponder.
posted by Ahab at 3:41 PM on May 29, 2013


Entertainingly, the iPad interprets the 800-1000 link as a phone number and won't open it... On preview, it's not a link, is it? it's just the iPad being dense...
posted by Slap*Happy at 5:03 PM on May 29, 2013


Ahab: "But also because a few years ago, while researching a history of a single house and going through the diaries of the first owners, I came across a lock of hair. First haircut type thing. It was 103 or so years old, but very visibly still soft and beautiful. I couldn't help but reach out my white cotton gloved hand and stroke it.

That hair belonged to Henrietta Drake-Brockman, whose research led to the rediscovery of the Batavia wreck in 1963.
"

Ahab, that's fantastic. Something so personal as hair is such an amazing way to feel like you're connecting with someone from the past.

And I agree entirely with infini: you need to FPP some Batavia stuff! So few people know about it outside of WA, it seems.
posted by barnacles at 11:12 PM on May 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


Infini, Barnacles, thanks for the vote of confidence, but I reckon Filthy covered the gist of the VOC journeys and wrecks in his Dutch Shipwrecks comments and links. To do it better than the linked content would mean broadening it out into into a megapost that I'm not up to writing right now. But if anyone else wants to do it, I'd love to read it!

(And heap some shit on those crazy Dutch folk who just won't stop looking for the lost white tribe of Western Australia..)

As for the hair.. yeah.. There are certainly things you come across in archival research that have a very real and visceral impact in the present. And they can be really positive. But Henrietta Drake-Brockman was just about a goddess in maritime history and literary circles here, her mother (whose papers I was reading) holds a similar historical stature in WA feminist and medical circles, and even with gloves on, fondling H D-B's hair is not something I can see anyone round here approving of. It did feel weird and like some kind of professional transgression.

Another mega-post that ought to come out of this - the Makassar trade in metal tools and weapons into Arnhem land (keyword 'shovel headed spear'); and the long history of the Yolngu leading the charge for and defence of aboriginal land and sea rights. You can easily argue the two are connected. But also something for someone else or another time.
posted by Ahab at 6:21 AM on May 30, 2013


Researchers revealed about trade that existed between China and east Africa years before the arrival of Europeans. The basis of such findings is the discovery of a 15th-century Chinese coin in Kenya.
posted by infini at 12:17 AM on June 1, 2013 [2 favorites]


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