Ancient Chinese Coin Brought Good Luck in Yukon

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This 340-year-old coin etched with traditional Chinese characters was found in Canada's Yukon.
James Mooney

THE GIST

- Archaeologists found a puzzling Chinese coin in Canada's Yukon Territory.

- The coin was cast between 1667 and 1671 -- long before the 1898 gold rush.

- The 17th-century coin has five small holes and may have been used as an amulet.

The discovery of a puzzling 340-year-old coin etched with traditional Chinese characters in Canada's Yukon territory suggests that the area was already aflurry with trading even before the Gold Rush.

Minted during the Qing Dynasty reign of Emperor Kangxi, the coin is 60 percent copper and 40 percent zinc. It was cast between 1667 and 1671 -- long before the 1898 gold rush, when people from all over the world headed to Dawson City and the Klondike gold fields.

The coin adds to an intriguing small collection of ancient Chinese coinage discovered in Yukon near gold rush trails.

"Overall, three Chinese coins have been found in the Yukon Territory," expedition leader James Mooney, from Ecofor Consulting Ltd., told Discovery News.

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While one dates from 1724 and 1735, a third coin, unearthed in 1993 near a gold rush trail by Beaver Creek, is surprisingly older.

"This coin was thought to date from 1880 to 1910 and to be associated with a Klondike era use of a trading trail," Mooney said.

But fact-checking following the new discovery revealed that the coin dated from between 1403 and 1424.

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"This age overlaps with a controversial theory of worldwide exploration by Chinese explorers, and only begs more questions," Mooney said.

The three ancient Chinese coins are round with a square hole in the center, but the newly found coin has four additional small holes above each corner of the central square.

"The vast majority of these Chinese 'cash coins' did not have additional holes drilled into them," Gary Ashkenazy, an expert in old Chinese coins, told Discovery News.

However, coins of certain emperors were considered to be particularly auspicious and were treated as amulets or charms.

"Additional holes were drilled in these coins so that they could be attached to a house ridgepole, door or gate in order to provide protection. They were also sewn onto clothing as a means to protect a person from ghosts and evil spirits," Ashkenazy said

The Yukon coin was likely used this way since it was cast during the long reign of Emperor Kangxi.

"These coins are considered lucky because kang means health and xi means prosperous. Also, Emperor Kangxi reigned for more than 60 years so his name is associated with longevity," Ashkenazy said.

Chinese people collected coins cast from each of the 20 mints which operated during the reign of Emperor Kangxi. Put on a string in a certain order to form a sort of poem, the coins were carried as amulets for good luck.

A Ming Dynasty coin unearthed in 1993 in a travel corridor near a Yukon gold trail, may have also been a good luck charm, according to Ashkenazy. Cast between 1403 and 1424 during the reign of Emperor Cheng Zu, it featured the inscription yong le tong bao, meaning "happiness forever."

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Although it cannot be ruled out that the ancient coins were brought into Yukon by gold diggers who carried them as family amulets, Mooney believes that they are evidence of extensive pre-gold rush trading.

Found at a spot overlooking a river that would have made a good campsite, the 17th-century coin likely reached the remote wilderness of Yukon through "Russian and coastal Tlingit trade intermediaries," Mooney said.

The coin would have been brought back by Russians when they traded furs from North American wildlife to the Chinese in exchange for their goods.

Known to have occurred as early as the mid-1700s, Russian trade along the Pacific Northwest also involved the native Tlingit people.

The Russians traded glass beads, silk, coinage and other goods from China with the Tlingit in exchange for furs, such as sea otter, seal, beaver, fox and marten.

The Tlingit, in turn, traded the exotic goods with the Athapaskan First Nations people.

They fiercely defended their control over coastal-interior trading through the famed Chilkoot Pass, a 33-mile trail through the Coast Mountains which was climbed by thousands of stampeders during the gold rush.

Mooney suggests the Tlingit traders may have used the Chinese coins as armor -- sewing them onto leather in overlapping patterns. In recovered artifact, over 200 coins were used in a single chest armor piece.

"This is a very rare and exciting time period when foreign items, materials, and influences make their way to a people without written documentation of their culture," Mooney said.

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