It may surprise you but stone discs, as the one shown beneath, are still used as currency on Yap, an island in Micronesia (South-West Pacific). Tourists who visit the island are often astonished that the people of Yap just leave their money lying in the streets. And it is not ‘small change’ we are speaking of. The largest stones can be 4 metres in diameter and weigh about 15 tonnes. Where lies the origin of this special kind of money?
A few ages ago some Yapese men sailed from Yap to the neighbouring island of Palau, about 400 kilometres away from Yap. There they discovered a special rock: aragonite. Since aragonite was not found on Yap, the Yapese cut out massive pieces of it in the caves on Palau. Next, these stones were hewn into discs and a hole was carved in the centre in order to facilitate the journey by land. After a while the Yapese decided to use these discs as a means of payment and the stones got the name rai.
The boat trip from Palau to Yap was in fact not without risks. Many Yapese men got hurt or even drowned during the voyage and this had an important influence on the value of the stones that were transported. Tradition has it that the more risks and as a consequence the more victims during a journey, the higher the value a stone obtained. So, the hardships suffered during the conveyance by sea together with the rarity of the material (aragonite) made the discs very valuable for the people of Yap.
Maybe you ask yourself now how the value of a stone was determined more concretely? Apart from the beauty of its material and the history of the stone itself (i.e. age, number of victims, degree of complexity of cutting out the stone) the size of the stone is important to assess the value, together with the social status of the parties in the transaction. Stone money that has circulated among the wealthy for example is esteemed more highly than the stones of common people.
After 1931 no new stones have been made. Because of their abnormal size and weight the stones were very impractical means of payments; therefore the American dollar has been introduced in the 20th century on Yap to make small, daily payments. However, large purchases like houses and land are still paid with rai. In addition the aragonite stones are also used today to pay damages.
Very remarkable is the way in which in the past (and still today for large purchases) transactions were effected on Yap. When a stone passed from one owner to the other, it was most of the time not moved. The stones thus remained on their original place on the island: this could be by men’s houses, outside homes, in the streets…
When people leave their money lying in the streets, one would expext this money to be stolen frequently. In fact, this rarely happens. First of all, the islanders are well informed of the owners of the stones and the stone money is thus under constant supervision of (almost) everyone on the island. Moreover, could you possibly think of a way to steal a stone of five tonnes without anyone noticing?
- Lautz Th., Steinreich in der Südsee. Traditionelle Zahlungsmittel in Mikronesien, Köln, 1999.