In 1944, Royal Australian Air Force serviceman Maurie Isenberg discovered five coins from medieval Africa on a beach…in Australia! Thought to date back to the 12th century, the mystery of how they ended up discovered beside the sea, some 10,000km and 900 years from their origin, has continued to this day. Investigations earlier this year suggested that local Aboriginal mythology about early contact with other peoples might hold the key. And that theory might be backed up by the discovery of rock art in the area showing a European-style boat, as well as possible wood from a shipwreck:
Australian Ian McIntosh, a professor of anthropology at Indiana University-Purdue University in the United States, said rock art found on the islands – which includes one image which appears to show a type of European sailing vessel – could hold some clues. “A big part of the next stage will be documenting, dating and interpreting (the art), together with indigenous peoples,” McIntosh told AFP from his home in Indiana.
The coins – believed to have originated in the medieval sultanate of Kilwa, an area which is now in Tanzania – have led to speculation that parts of northern Australia were visited by other mariners from as far away as the Middle East and Africa. As McIntosh wrote in a recent paper for the journal “Australian Folklore”, in terms of the chain of events in the discovery, “the argument for the involvement of Kilwa traders and also the Portuguese is quite compelling”.
He notes the sea route from Kilwa in east Africa to Oman and then onto India, Malaysia and Australia’s close neighbour Indonesia was well established by the 1500s and probably for many hundreds of years before that.