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.