Ancient Chinese Coin Discovery Indicates Early Trade With East Africa
March 14, 2013

Ancient Chinese Coin Discovery Indicates Early Trade With East Africa

Lawrence LeBlond for - Your Universe Online

A joint expedition of researchers from The Field Museum and the University of Illinois at Chicago has discovered a 600-year-old Chinese coin on the Kenyan island of Manda. While the discovery of the coin may be fascinating, the more significant discovery is that the coin´s presence indicates the presence of trade between China and east Africa decades before the arrival of European explorers.

The small coin was disk-like and made of copper and silver. It had a small square hole in the center so it could be worn on a belt. It is called a “Yongle Tongbao” and was minted between 1403 and 1425 AD during the reign of Emperor Yongle during the Ming Dynasty, according to a statement made by The Field Museum´s Dr. Chapurukha M. Kusimba, who co-led the expedition to the region.

The team dated the coin easily due to the fact that Emperor Yongle´s name was cast into the coin. Yongle is famed for starting construction of the Forbidden City and was very interested in trade with other countries along the Indian Ocean. Yongle sent Admiral Zheng He (also known as Cheng Ho) to explore these lands and to trade with local cultures.

"Zheng He was, in many ways, the Christopher Columbus of China," said Dr. Kusimba, curator of African Anthropology at The Field Museum. "It's wonderful to have a coin that may ultimately prove he came to Kenya," he added.

"This finding is significant. We know Africa has always been connected to the rest of the world, but this coin opens a discussion about the relationship between China and Indian Ocean nations," added Dr. Kusimba.

Another indication that the trade occurred before European influence to the area is that after Yongle´s death in 1424, all foreign expeditions were banned, meaning it would have been improbable that the coin surfaced in east Africa at a later date. The Chinese ban on trade also allowed European explorers to dominate the Age of Discovery and expand their empire into other countries.

Early trade played an important role in the development of the island of Manda, which was home to an advanced civilization from 200 AD to 1430 AD, when it was abandoned and never inhabited again, another indication that trade existed long before European exploration. The coin´s discovery shows that the importance of trade on the island occurred much earlier than previously thought.

"We hope this and future expeditions to Manda will play a crucial role in showing how market-based exchange and urban-centered political economies arise and how they can be studied through biological, linguistic, and historical methodologies," Dr. Kusimba said.

The research team also included scientists from the University of Pennsylvania, Fort Jesus National Museums of Kenya, Wright State University and Sun Yat-Sen University in China. Professor Tiequan Zhu of Sun Yat-Sen made the coin discovery, and team members also discovered human remains and other artifacts that predate the coin.