The Megalithic Money of Yap
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. 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.
The Island of Yap – James Hopp
Rai of Yap - the stone money – Wondermondo
The Mythology of Oceania – Cook Szigetek