Big Money: Yap's Stone Currency

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Photo Credit: Flickr user annamatic3000

If you wanted to be a bank robber on Yap, you’d need a forklift and a crane, along with an 18-wheeler to make your getaway. That’s because for centuries, the main form of currency on this tiny Micronesian island was stones. Very large stones. Looking like Claes Oldenburg sculptures of oversized bagels, the stones – or rai, as they’re called – can stand as high as ten feet and weigh several tons each.

While these carved stones may not look like big bucks to an outsider, some have enough value to purchase a new house.

Of course, all currency, from beads to spices to paper bearing pictures of dead presidents, carries an arbitrary designation. It’s money because a culture says it is. And often, in the beginning, it’s money because it’s pleasing to the eye. Think of silver and gold. That’s the way it was with the stones on Yap.

According to local legend, five hundred years ago, Yapese fishermen got lost at sea and washed up on the island of Palau. There they saw some shimmering Limestone deposits and thought they looked beautiful. They broke off a piece of stone, carved it into the shape of a whale, brought it home and called it money. The Yapese word for whale is “rai,” and it soon became synonymous with all stone currency.

Photo Credit: Flickr user David Weekly

In time, the villages on Yap were launching regular expeditions to Palau to bring back more rai. For the right to quarry on their island, Palau residents were paid with various services, plus goods like beads and coconuts. As their mining process became more refined, the Yapese started carving the limestone into disks with holes, presumably because they were easier to carry. Poles were inserted through the centers and sailors hauled them to waiting boats. In the 19th century, the size of the rai grew markedly, as European traders equipped Yap natives with more modern tools.

The Value of a Giant Stone With a Hole In It

Though many of the large stones look similar, not all rai is of equal value. Its worth depends on several factors. The first has to do with its provenance. How many lives were lost in transporting the stone to Yap? In the old days, it was a treacherous journey by sea to obtain the stones. Beyond the mining and transportation across three hundred miles, there was also a lot of rivalry between village chiefs, resulting in fights to secure the rai.

The second factor has to do with who discovered a particular stone. Having a famous sailor’s name attached to it, or the dedication of a chief who sponsored the mining trip, can greatly increase the rai’s value. There’s also the matter of craftsmanship. Many of the newer rai stones are highly polished with smooth edges, a look that’s been achieved with imported modern metal tools. The older stones, less polished and rough-hewn, were finished with homegrown shell tools, which gives them a higher value.

Once transported to Yap, the stones were rarely moved. In fact, unlike most currency in the world, the rai were not hidden in banks, but publicly displayed, in ceremonial grounds and village centers. Even if their ownership changed hands from village to village, the stones remained in place, because everyone understood who owned them. Though there’s no direct parallel in our own currency, rai are a bit like bonds or certificates of deposit. They gain value over time, and are used only for major purchases.

For smaller, everyday transactions, there are other forms of money on Yap, including turmeric, pearl shells, banana fiber mat and mortars and pestles. And since the early 1990s, the American dollar and the Euro have found their way onto the island via a burgeoning new tourist trade.

Elsewhere on the Island...

And something much more unexpected from America may have also ended up on Yap. Remember New Coke? Back in the mid-‘80s, that was Coca-Cola’s misguided attempt to fix something that wasn’t broke. Public outcry resulted in Coke returning to their Classic formula. Meanwhile, New Coke, its sugary younger brother, lingered in the shadows until 2002, when it was discontinued. But according to various unconfirmed reports, New Coke, or Coke II as it's also known, has apparently found a small, but stable market on Yap.

No word on how much it costs per can, but chances are its somewhere between a pinch of turmeric and a ten-foot rai.

October 4, 2011 - 11:07am
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