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Did East Africans Discover Australia?
By Richard Giedroyc, World Coin News
May 06, 2013

This article was originally printed in World Coin News.
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The world may have been a smaller place a thousand years ago than what we may have envisioned.

Captain James Cook is usually credited with being the first European to have encountered Australia’s eastern coastline in 1770. Now evidence suggesting an earlier encounter by traders from the sub-Sahara Africa sultanate of Kilwa centuries before is being examined, numismatic evidence discovered almost 70 years ago.

Maurie Isenberg was an Australian soldier during World War Two. Isenberg was assigned to a radar station at Jensen Bay on the Wessel Islands. The islands are a remote chain extending about 75 miles or 120 kilometers northeast from the Napier Peninsula in northeastern Northern Territory, Australia. The islands form the western gate to the Gulf of Carpentaria at Cape Wessel and extend into the Arafura Sea. The islands were named for a Dutch ship that in 1636 explored the area.

In his off-duty hours Isenberg fished along the beaches, where he found some coins. He had no interest in the coins, but he did place them in a tin. He also marked the spot where he found the coins on a hand-drawn map, the map having been drawn by a fellow soldier. The coins were then forgotten, until recently.

The map and the coins are now being carefully examined by an anthropologist, Ian McIntosh, who is a faculty member at the Indiana University School of Liberal Arts. McIntosh has recently received a grant from the Australian Geographic Society. In July he plans to lead a team including an anthropologist, archaeologist, historian, and a geomorphologist in addition to local Aboriginal rangers that will explore the original find site on the Wessel Islands. The islands are within the Arnhem Land Aboriginal Reserve. There are caves on the islands decorated with Aborigine art.

The coins found by Isenberg include several copper duits of the Dutch East India Company, one dating 1690. What is more interesting are the five copper coins struck between 900 and the 1300s by Kilwa. Kilwa is now a World Heritage ruin south of Zanzibar in Tanzania. Add to this local Aboriginal folklore regarding a nearby hidden cave in which allegedly are gold doubloons and ancient weaponry and you’ve got an archaeological as well as a numismatic mystery to unravel.

McIntosh said of the African coin discovery, “Multiple theses have been put forward by noted scholars, and the major goal is to piece together more of the puzzle. Is a shipwreck involved? Are there more coins? All options are on the table, but only the proposed expedition can help us answer some of these perplexing questions.”

Kilwa coins were issued between the 11th and the 15th centuries from the Swahili culture capital of Kilwa Kisiwani on the southern East Africa coast region. The majority of the known coins are composed of copper, although coins are also known in bronze, silver, and gold. The coins were cast rather than struck.

Excavations at which Kilwa coins have been found suggest copper coins were typically used within the Kilwa region, with silver coins used

along the local coastal region, while gold may have been reserved for international trade. The potential problem McIntosh will face is determining if the Kilwa coins were mixed with the much later coins of the Dutch traders or if the Kilwa coin find was the result of direct East African trade with Australia.

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