In 1770, British sea captain Lieutenant James Cook landed on the east coast of Australia, claiming the territory for England. But a new expedition led by an Australian anthropologist is seeking evidence of ancient explorations that may have taken place far before Cook and his fellow European explorers ever arrived on the continent.
The expedition, led by Ian McIntosh, a professor at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI), will follow a nearly 70-year-old treasure map to an area where a cache of mysterious, 1,000-year-old coins were discovered in the 1940s, according to a IUPUI release.
The researchers hope to discover how the coins ended up in the sand -- whether they washed ashore from a shipwreck and whether they can provide more details about ancient trading routes.
The coins were originally found during World War II by Australian soldier Maurie Isenberg, who was stationed in a remote area known as the Wessel Islands, off the Australian north coast. While fishing one day in 1944, Isenberg found a few old coins and took them home as keepsakes. It wasn't until 1979 that Isenberg sent the coins to be authenticated and learned they were actually 1,000 years old.
According to IUPUI, some of the coins are from the Dutch East India Company, while five older coins came from Kilwa Sultanate in Tanzania. Once an opulent trading hub, Kilwa is now in ruins, classified a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
“This trade route was already very active, a very long period of time ago, and this may [be] evidence of that early exploration by peoples from East Africa, or from the Middle East,” McIntosh told Indiana Public Media.
Australia has a "fixation" on Cook and the Dutch explorers who reached Australia in the 1600s, but the coins hint at something bigger, McIntosh said.
"There is strong evidence that Australia was part of a broad trading network," that at one point included southern Africa, India, China and the Spice Islands, McIntosh told The Huffington Post. "To what extent we have no idea, but we have to find out."
The Wessel Islands, located about 130 kilometers off Australia's northern coast, serve as a "big catching arm" for any ships blown off course, McIntosh told HuffPost.
"Everything about [the islands] speaks of ancient context," he said.
McIntosh will be attempting to retrace Isenberg's steps, using a map the old soldier drew by hand. Isenberg marked the coins' site with an "X."
"It's like a detective story. We're trying to piece together the past," he said.
McIntosh will be joined by a team of Australian and American historians, archaeologists, geomorphologists and Aboriginal rangers. With financial backing from the Australian Geographic Society, the team will map and survey the area where the coins were discovered, test the soil and conduct various coastal analysis, according to the IUPUI news release.