Ancient African Coins Spark Treasure Hunt

The ruins of Kilwa were once part of a glittering trading center on the eastern coast of Africa.
Stefanie van der Vinde/

Will 5 coins rewrite history?

The Eurocentric view of history holds that Australia, populated by Aboriginal settlers for some 60,000 years, was "discovered" by European explorers in 1606.

But since the discovery of the ancient coins, which came to the attention of McIntosh before Isenberg died in 1991, that history may need to be rewritten. McIntosh also has the old map showing where the coins were discovered.

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This July, McIntosh will carry that map back to the Wessel Islands, where he's leading an international team of researchers intent on solving the mystery of how the coins found their way to a remote beach in Australia.

"We have five separate hypotheses we're looking to test about how these coins got there — each one quite different from the other," McIntosh told CNN.

Some speculate that the Portuguese sailed along Australia's northern shores much earlier than was previously known. Another hypothesis suggests that African sailors from Kilwa were hired by merchants from the Far East to navigate the seas of China.

"Once you shift from the Eurocentric focus -- and this is how it could change Australian history -- you start seeing north Australia as part of this ancient trading network which links southern Africa, Arabian Persia, India, the Spice Islands and China," McIntosh told ABC.

A cave of treasures

Adding to the adventure's appeal is an Aboriginal legend that mentions a hidden cave, located near where the coins were found, that holds a treasure of doubloons and weaponry from an ancient era, according to a news release from IUPUI.

Despite their rich history, the old copper coins — now in the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney — have limited financial value.

"If you bought these coins in a shop in Kilwa, you could probably get them for a few dollars," McIntosh told CNN. "But in northern Australia, these are priceless in terms of their historical value."

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