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Cannon hints at earlier European arrival in Australia

An antiquated cannon found on an Australian beach has raised questions about when the first Europeans landed, after new analysis Friday traced the lead it is made from to an old Spanish mine.

The 2010 discovery of the cannon by a schoolboy at Dundee Beach in the Northern Territory — with its 1500s Portuguese design — sparked speculation that Europeans arrived in Australia before the Dutch in the early 1600s and British explorer James Cook in 1770.

Early analysis showed that sand stuck inside the cannon — described as a swivel gun — was dated to between 200 to 300 years old, suggesting it had lain undisturbed for centuries.

Now new analysis of the lead used to make the weapon has found it closely matches lead from a particular mine in Andalusia in southern Spain, University of Melbourne researcher Matthew Cupper said.

“Certainly it is at least 100 years old and probably somewhat older,” Cupper said, adding that additional information about when the mine first opened would shed more light on the weapon’s age.

“The results definitely support the hypothesis that the gun is of European origin,” said Mike Owen, a heritage consultant and director of the Darwin-based historical group Past Masters.

“It’s one for people who support an early presence of Europeans in Australia.”

Owen said that while the most accepted theory about the gun’s arrival was that it came with Indonesian traders — the Macassans — from Sulawesi, it could have been brought over by the Portuguese, who arrived in the East Timor region north of Australia in 1515.

But Paul Clark, a senior curator at the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory where the cannon was put on display this week, said the style of the gun matched other weapons that were known to have been made in Indonesia.

“Our argument is that we do know the Macassans were here along the north Australian coast,” he said, adding that they were believed to have been present from at least 1750.

Cupper said the gun could have been made with lead or bronze from other objects.

“It could be that the gun started life as something else in Spain, and then it might have been imported to Java by the Dutch or to Timor with the Portuguese and melted down to make the gun,” he said.

“It’s certainly an important object in Australia’s early-contact… with non-Aboriginal people.”