13th century cockatoo images question Australia-Europe trade history | News | DW | 27.06.2018
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13th century cockatoo images question Australia-Europe trade history

The drawings of a cockatoo gifted to Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II of Sicily are dated between 1241-1248. The cockatoo would have taken a several-year journey from Australasia to Cairo and then on to Sicily.

Drawings of an Australasian cockatoo found in the pages of a 13th-century European manuscript on falcons suggest trade in Australia was booming as far back as medieval times, researchers said Tuesday.

Four images of the white cockatoo were discovered in Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II of Sicily's De Arte Venandi cum Avibus (The Art of Hunting with Birds), which is dated between 1241 and 1248 and is held in the Vatican library.

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The colored drawings are 250 years older than what was previously believed to be the oldest European depiction of the bird, in Andrea Mantegna's 1496 altarpiece "Madonna della Vittoria." 

The Latin text next to one of the images revealed the cockatoo was a gift from the fourth Ayyubid sultan of Egypt to Frederick II, who referred to him as the "Sultan of Babylon."

A drawing of a cockatoo from Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II's manuscript (Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana)

The cockatoo would have taken a several-year journey from Australasia to Cairo and then on to Sicily.

Three scholars at the Finnish Institute in Rome were working on De Arte Venandi cum Avibus when they stumbled across the images.

They had seen a 2014 article by Heather Dalton, an honorary research fellow at the University of Melbourne, about the cockatoo featured in "Madonna della Vittoria," and so the four began a collaboration to identify the type of cockatoo.

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After examining the shape of the crest and the coloring of the cockatoo in Frederick II's manuscript, the researchers concluded it was likely to have been either a female Triton or one of three sub-species of the Yellow-crested Cockatoo.

This means that the cockatoo gifted to Frederick II was taken either from the northernmost tip of what is now Australia's mainland, or New Guinea, or the islands off New Guinea or Indonesia. 

Australia part of flourishing trade network

Dalton pieced together the route the cockatoo would have taken to reach Frederick II - from Australasia to Cairo and then on to Sicily, which would have been primarily overland and taken several years.

The discovery of the images in Frederick II's manuscript showed "Australia was part of a flourishing trade network that reached west to the Middle East and beyond," Dalton wrote.

"Although our part of the world is still considered the very last to have been discovered, this Eurocentric view is increasingly being challenged by finds such as this," she said.

"Small craft sailed between islands buying and selling fabrics, animal skins and live animals before making for ports in places such as Java, where they sold their wares to Chinese, Arab and Persian merchants. Boasting an unusually long life span, sometimes stretching as high as 100 years, cockatoos would have been better suited than many creatures to long-distance live transportation.

The first documented landing by a European in the country was in 1606, according to the National Library of Australia.

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