Megalithic Money - Yap Micronesia

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

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


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


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.

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! 

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.


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.


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


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