An explorer from medieval China may have visited an island off the coast of Kenya, archaeologists say.
A joint expedition by The Field Museum and the University of Illinois at Chicago unearthed a 15th-century Chinese coin on the Kenyan island of Manda, according to a Field Museum press release. Starting around 200 A.D., Manda was a trading hub and home to an advanced civilization.
The coin, shown here, is an alloy of copper and silver and was issued by the Ming Emperor Yongle, who reigned from 1403-1425 A.D. The coin bears the emperor’s name.
Emperor Yongle sent Admiral Zheng He, also known as Cheng Ho, on an epic mission of exploration to find new trading partners. He traveled around the coasts of south and southeast Asia, east Africa as far north as Somalia, and the Arabian Peninsula.
“Zheng He was, in many ways, the Christopher Columbus of China,” said Dr. Kusimba, curator of African Anthropology at The Field Museum. “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.”
Sadly, later Chinese rulers took a more insular policy and banned foreign expeditions. If they had continued Yongle’s work, the great Age of Exploration may have been more Chinese than European. Manda was mysteriously abandoned around 1430, shortly after Emperor Yongle’s death.
Chinese contact with east Africa has become a hot topic of research in recent years. Back in 2010, we reported that a DNA study found genetic links between China and Africa.
While the focus has been on Kenya, researchers might want to take a look at the city of Harar in Ethiopia, which has been a trading center for centuries. Some Hararis have vaguely Chinese features, and Harari coins have been found in China. When I was doing research there some Hararis told me that the city used to trade with China many centuries ago.
In the nearby early medieval settlement of Harla, which may have been the predecessor to Harar, farmers have uncovered two Chinese coins dated to 1040 and 1080 A.D.
[Photo courtesy John Weinstein/The Field Museum]