Cockatoo discovery reveals flourishing medieval trade routes around Australia's north

June 25, 2018, University of Melbourne
One of the four images of the cockatoo gifted to Frederick II by the ‘Sultan of Babylon’. Codex Ms. Pal. Lat 1071, folio 20v (© [2018] Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana).

Images of an Australasian cockatoo have been discovered in a manuscript dating from 13th century Sicily, now held in the Vatican library.

This finding reveals that trade in the waters in and around Australia's north was flourishing as far back as medieval times, linked into sea and overland routes to Indonesia, China, Egypt and beyond into Europe.

The four images of the white feature in the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II of Sicily's De Arte Venandi cum Avibus (The Art of Hunting with Birds), which dates from between 1241 and 1248.

These coloured drawings pre-date by 250 years what was previously believed to be the oldest European depiction of a cockatoo, in Andrea Mantegna's 1496 altarpiece Madonna della Vittoria.

Faculty of Arts School of Historical and Philosophical Studies Honorary Research Fellow Heather Dalton in 2014 published an article about the cockatoo in Mantegna's 15th century painting.

This article captured the attention of three Finnish scholars at the Finnish Institute in Rome, who were working on De Arte Venandi cum Avibus and who realised they had found much older depictions.

The resulting collaboration between Dr. Dalton, Pekka Niemelä (a biologist and environmental scientist at the University of Turku), Jukka Salo (a zoologist and Head of the Sino-Finnish research and conservation program on the Giant Panda) and Simo Örmä (Intendant of the Finnish Institute in Rome) reveals that Frederick's cockatoo was likely to have been either a female Triton or one of three sub-species of Yellow-crested Cockatoo (also known as Lesser Suphur-crested).

This means the bird originated from Australia's northern tip, New Guinea or the islands off New Guinea or Indonesia.

Dr. Dalton said the Latin text next to one of the images reveals that the cockatoo was a gift from the fourth Ayyubid Sultan of Egypt to Frederick II, who referred to him as the 'Sultan of Babylon'. She pieced together the journey a cockatoo would have taken from Australasia to Cairo and then on to Sicily—a journey which would have been primarily overland and taken several years.

"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," Dr. Dalton 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.

"The fact that a cockatoo reached Sicily during the 13th century shows that merchants plying their trade to the north of Australia were part of a flourishing network that reached west to the Middle East and beyond."

Their work is published in the current edition of Parergon Journal 35/1 (June 2018): 35-60.

Explore further: Philippines seizes hundreds of smuggled animals

More information: Heather Dalton. A Sulphur-crested Cockatoo in fifteenth-century Mantua: rethinking symbols of sanctity and patterns of trade, Renaissance Studies (2013). DOI: 10.1111/rest.12042

Related Stories

Cockatoos' family history revealed through DNA

April 6, 2011

Murdoch University researchers have used new DNA sequencing techniques to help give them a better understanding of how cockatoo species have evolved and how they fit together in a family tree.

Cockatoo survival under threat

March 13, 2012

The long-term survival of three black cockatoo species endemic to the south west of Western Australia is under threat.

Recommended for you

Nanoscale Lamb wave-driven motors in nonliquid environments

March 19, 2019

Light driven movement is challenging in nonliquid environments as micro-sized objects can experience strong dry adhesion to contact surfaces and resist movement. In a recent study, Jinsheng Lu and co-workers at the College ...

OSIRIS-REx reveals asteroid Bennu has big surprises

March 19, 2019

A NASA spacecraft that will return a sample of a near-Earth asteroid named Bennu to Earth in 2023 made the first-ever close-up observations of particle plumes erupting from an asteroid's surface. Bennu also revealed itself ...

Levitating objects with light

March 19, 2019

Researchers at Caltech have designed a way to levitate and propel objects using only light, by creating specific nanoscale patterning on the objects' surfaces.


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.