Megalithic Money - Yap Micronesia

The Megalithic Money of Yap

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The tiny island of Yap in the western Pacific holds a strange attraction for economists, because it cuts to the heart of a very basic question “what is money?”

For centuries the Yap islanders have used huge megalithic crystal discs as their money. Shaped like gigantic wheels and carved from single blocks of calcite crystal this ‘stone money’ is called “rai”. The largest yet discovered measures 12 feet in diameter (3.6 meters) and weighs 4 metric tons, the weight of four family cars, a truly unique form of currency.

The rai stones were not used for just any purchase; day-to-day commerce was conducted with the exchange of shells, necklaces, baskets of fruit and cups of syrup. The rai were special, reserved for things like a bride’s dowry or exchanged when one tribe came to the aid of another in times of war and hardship.

Exactly how the relative value of each rai stone was calculated is still a mystery, but we do know that they were considered extremely valuable. A small rai stone was enough to buy some livestock whereas a large stone would be enough to buy many villages and plantations.

A rai money stone on Yap

A rai money stone on Yap. Photo credit: tata_aka_T

The size and craftsmanship of the crystals give only a rough indication of their value. Far more important to the value of the stones was their ‘story’.

On Yap, there is no source of calcite crystal for making rai stones. Archeologists have discovered that, beginning around 500 A.D., the megalithic stones were brought to Yap from the ancient crystal mines on the island of Palau, more than 280 miles away.  The stones were quarried, shaped and then shipped across the open sea; a journey that took more than a month. Each stone arrived on Yap with a ‘story’ of its intrepid journey. The stones that endured the greatest dangers were valued most highly.

Rai stones could even earn ‘interest’. Increasing in value according to the good deeds and successful partnerships they were used to finance. For example, if a stone was used as a dowry and the marriage was good, resulting in many children of good character, then the value of the stone increased accordingly.

According to local legend, one of the most valuable rai stones was lost at sea in a great storm and never even made it to Yap. The huge crystal now lies at the bottom of the Pacific, 100 miles short of its destination. The islanders agreed that this particular rai stone was now of great value, even if they couldn’t set eyes on it.

Due to the huge size, terrific weight and the great difficulty involved in moving the crystals, once in place on the island (or at the bottom of the sea), the rai stones stayed put and the megalithic currency quickly made the leap into something very abstract.

Imagine, if you will, in the middle of the village is a huge round crystal rai stone. One day the crystal belongs to me, then you and I engage in trade and the next day the crystal belongs to you. But the stone never moved, no unit of currency changed hands, just that everyone now knows the stone money belongs to you.

The concept of Yap’s ancient and abstract stone money system somehow feels strangely ’modern’. When you go online to pay a bill, what really changes? A few digits in a computer at your bank and a few digits in a computer at the other end, but no ‘thing’ is exchanged, no ‘stone’ moves.

Featured image: The stone ‘money bank’ on Yap. Photo credit: Richard Johnson.

By Maya McNicoll

Sources

The Island of Yap – James Hopp

Rai of Yap - the stone money – Wondermondo

The Mythology of Oceania – Cook Szigetek

The Island of Stone Money, WWI History & Traditional Culture - Yap

Comments

It's that old question of ownership that comes to mind with this story - who really ever 'owns' something? In a way, we're all sons and daughters of the Earth and so, instead of actually owning something like a stone, it is as if, through good luck or honourable circumstances, the people of Yap allow someone to be known to be in more frugal existence with the earth than others. Okay, perhaps that didn't make sense. If the stone is good and has brought a family happiness, it is not because they own the stone, but that the stone is closer to them and the money system is based more on deserved social acceptance that the 'richer' families are the happier ones, but they are rich in terms of closeness to the sacred. 
I'm sorry, I'm not sure if this comment has made any sense but this article has forced me to really think and I thank you for posting it. I'll be turning this money idea over in my head all day now. 

Money should be a measure of value provided to others. Very simple isn't it?

I agree Lucas, and it all seems very obvious doesn' it?

But then I wonder why do we value the people that we make super rich these days and it simply doesn't make sense to me.

You know Milton Friedman? He was the economist from the Chicago School that influence Thatcher and Reagan in the 80's and is pretty much single-handedly responsible for our current economic set up. He studied the stone money culture of Yap and used it as justification for his policies.

What interesting times we live in.

Thanks for the comment.

Maya

I agree Hoog, in the Pacific there is a name for this concept, it is called 'mana'. Mana is a very important, possibly the most important, aspect of Pacific traditions and it deals with a person's true spiritual 'wealth'.

Traditionally there are three kinds of mana.

First is the mana you are born with, because of your genealogy. This could be the rank of the parents, grandparents, great-grandparents right back to the people who came across on the waka (canoes).

Then there is the the mana that you acquire through the respect of others. The mana a person is born with sets them off, but the way that they conduct themselves throughout life will either strengthen their own personal mana, or weaken their own personal mana and by that the mana of their descendants.

Then lastly there is group mana, for example the respect a whole village or island can garner. Yap was very highly regarded as having great mana because of its expertise in magic!

Thanks for the comment, very interesting.

All the best.

Maya

Hey Maya, 

Thank you for your comment! I'd heard about mana before from a Hawaiian man called Hank Wesselman but had never looked into it for some reason. Your comment's given me reason to fire up the google machine and get searching. I appreciate you taking the time to respond! 

Thank´s Maya for some very interresting additional information.

I think that we tend to disregard other values, when looking on "money". Western "modern" people think we are smart when reducing the entity of money to a standard trade exchange item, that is now really totally virtual . This is not entirely working with how people tic though.

The value of the contemporary moneys today are solely based on the trading powers of its protectorate. There is no long term or hard value and exchange rates can change with a political decision.

People tic in a different way though, depending on tradition, and we are no different from our ancestors in this regard. I beleive that the economical unrest that came alongside, when money went virtual, is even leading back to relating value to important comodities, like barrrels of oil or tons of certain metals and so on. Then, only using some virtual currency on short term, like it could as well have been seashells. This is returning to a more primitive form of valuing, without we recognicing it as such.

I would agree that the different "Manas" are relating much more to values for people and modern money are even leaving its role from earlier "modern" times.

Thanks Inventor.

I see what you mean.

Money has always been a difficult subject for me to get my head around.

'Value' and 'worth' on the other hand, I can understand. But money? That's a real tough one.

Money means freedom/ power/ control if you have it and constrain/ struggle/ subjugation if you don't. I say that without any political agenda, just as an observation.

And all the time, the very 'thing', the money itself, has no inherent value what so ever. It is like we are 'praying at the pulpit' of a false master and it only works when we all play along.

Like I said, I struggle with the concept of money : )

Thanks for sharing your point of view.

Tigressa's picture
From my experience from working with crystals as a tool for healing I understand why these need not be moved to be of value.  Crystals are programmable and work as a communications device for energy and consciousness. This is why they useful for healing: they are excellent for attracting energy, moving energy, or changing your electromagnetic frequency so as to be able to access trance states.    Each rai stone will have a story and 'personality'. Their travel story is like a map of their character type perhaps, giving clues to the unique ways in which they will help their owner. The size of a crystal can impact the amount of energy they can channel, thus quality will be recognisable through both their story, character and size.    The crystal would probably act as a warden for the family/owner attracting and pouring energy toward them enhancing or even shielding the owner protectively.    Calcite in healing is typically used for clearing pathways of blockages in any form - emotional, energetic or otherwise. Calcite clarifies and helps the prana/tao/chi etc. to move freely unobstructed, giving high energy and a joyful quality to the person it is working with. On top of which the owner may experience elevated consciousness resulting in deeper spiritual connection with Source Energy if they are so inclined.    To formerly change hands, I imagine the crystal will simply be told that a new family are to be allied with it and the the former owner will release any connection to the calcite rai.    The energy of the crystal will emit the same from the centre of the village or from someone's home seeing as it's program for connection to the owner is set via intent and proximity is not key.           

Tigress, thank you so much for your very interesting and insightful comment about calcite crystal.

One thing I know about calcite is that it is found at every single ancient temple and pyramid site in Egypt. I even brought some home the last time I was there : ).

Thanks for the new information.

All the best.

Maya

these things remind me ancient chinese disks. their purpose were unexplained. maybe they used like yap stones.

Yes, these round stones containing crystals also remind me of the Dropa Stones that were found in a cave in the high mountains of China. Even modern and 19th century Chinese money is round and has the characteristic hole in the middle although the ones I have seen and found while metal detecting at old Chinese mining sites here in the western USA have square and not round holes in them. Interesting history though. This round shape with the holes in the middle and often a notch on one side, like the Dropa Stones ( and even many UFO's! ) is rather common all over the world when we look at almost all very ancient cultures. There must be more to it than we have caught on to as of yet. This is why I love history and am fascinated by all ancient cultures. Especially the Polynesian cultures, etc. that settled the Pacific. It's quite obvious that they sailed their huge canoes and boats all the way to North, Central and especially South America far, far back in time. The evidence is there for all to see. Easter Island being one example. It's in the middle of nowhere yet it was found and settled. The huge statues there are so similar to some found on the South American continent. Curiouser and curiouser.........

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