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600-Year-Old Chinese Coin Found In Kenya Shows Ancient Trade Links

A 600-year-old Chinese coin unearthed on the Kenyan island of Manda provides evidence that trade existed between China and east Africa decades ago.

| March 18, 2013 | In the Lab

AsianScientist (Mar. 18, 2013) – A 600-year-old Chinese coin unearthed on the Kenyan island of Manda provides evidence that trade existed between China and east Africa decades before European explorers set sail and changed the map of the world.

A joint expedition of scientists led by Dr. Chapurukha M. Kusimba of The Field Museum and Dr. Sloan R. Williams of the University of Illinois at Chicago resulted in the discovery of the coin, a small disk of copper and silver with a square hole in the center so it could be worn on a belt.

Called the “Yongle Tongbao,” the coin was issued by Emperor Yongle, who reigned from 1403-1425AD during the Ming Dynasty and who started construction of China’s Forbidden City. The emperor was interested in political and trade missions to the lands that ring the Indian Ocean and sent Admiral Zheng He, also known as Cheng Ho, to explore those shores.

“Zheng He was, in many ways, the Christopher Columbus of China,” said 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, explained Kusimba, because although it is common knowledge that Africa has always been connected to the rest of the world, this coin specifically opens up a discussion about the relationship between China and Indian Ocean nations.

But that relationship stopped soon after Emperor Yongle’s death when later Chinese rulers banned foreign expeditions, allowing European explorers to dominate the Age of Discovery and expand their countries’ empires.

The island of Manda, off the northern coast of Kenya, was home to an advanced civilization from about 200AD to 1430AD, when it was abandoned and never inhabited again. Trade played an important role in the development of Manda, and this coin may show trade’s importance on the island during that period.

“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,” Kusimba said.

Also involved was Professor Tiequan Zhu of Sun Yat-Sen University in Guangzhou, China, who identified the coin. The researchers also found human remains and other artifacts that predate the coin.

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Source: Field Museum; Photo: John Weinstein/The Field Museum.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

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