Across the world we place value in money, gold, precious stones and metals. But this island in the Pacific places its value in rocks. This may sound odd, but the island Yap uses stones as a form of currency. This tradition is something that amazes many economists and anthropologists as it makes us question what money really is.
Hundreds of years ago, explores from the Micronesian island of Yap in the pacific, found a deposit of limestone on an island hundreds of miles away. The people of Yap must have placed value in this limestone as after they discovered the rock, they carved it into huge circular discs and transported them back to Yap on bamboo boats.
It is unknown whether the rocks were intended to be used as currency when they were first discovered or if initially it was used as a form of currency when they were brought to the island. However, eventually the people of Yap decided that the limestones had worth and started to use it as money called Rai.
These stones were huge in size and were high in value. The limestones were not used to buy everyday items like food, but instead for important things such as a daughter’s dowry. The stones had huge value and some were even heavier than a car.
Scott Fitzpatrick, an anthropologist at North Carolina State University who is an expert on Yap, says; “If somebody was in real dire straits, and something happened to their crop of food or they were running low on provisions and they had some stone money, they might trade.”
Hundreds of these human sized limestone rocks, known as Rai, can be found across the Micronesian island of Yap still to this day. Many are scattered alongside the beaches and forests and some are by some of the islands’ few hotels. Each village even has its own stone money bank where pieces that are too heavy to move are put on display on dancing grounds.
Other Micronesian forms of currency such as, shell money has been replaced by the US dollar for everyday transactions like the weekly food shop. However, for exchanges like rights of customs, stone money remains a vital currency for the residence of Yap.
Falmed is one of the islands 11,000 residence, he says his family have used stone currency twice when his brother’s marriage had failed. He says; “We used it for one of my brothers who made trouble for another family. One of the chiefs, his daughter got one piece of stone money as an apology, and they accepted it. When it comes to high ranks, you have to use stone money.”
The fluid value of the stone money challenges aspects of western concepts in relation to money. The west view money as having a pre-determined value, whereas the island of Yap determines the value of the stone currency by its sheer ornateness and size. They can also be valued on their purpose and what they are being used for. It is this very concept that places the question, what the true value of money is.
There is no need for the island of Yap to continue making Rai as the money is now in circulation across the island. From one exchange to another just like money. Similarly, to western society and the perception and value of money, Rai holds a central position in the culture and society on Yap. Rai is central to the traditions of Yap to the extent that oral history is a factor of each stone’s value. There is no written record of who owns the stones and what possessions belong to what family, so this is where oral tradition comes into play.
Tribal elders from across the villages on the island pass down information about each piece of limestone. By orally keeping record of the history of each stone it means the stones act as a reminder of the past. This effectively helps to reinforce relationships and the historic transactions that date back to the times of warriors and clans. The Rai limestones also have engravings on them, some that dating back to battles of 200 years ago.
The Rai stones longevity was represented in the second world war in the Japanese occupation. The Stones mostly escaped the US bombing and remained strong, highlighting the islands long-lasting authentic culture. However, it appears Yap is one of a kind as it’s neighbouring islands Chuuk, Guam and Palau have been influenced heavily by the west specifically by US and European colonisation. Many of the surrounding islands bare the scares of the second world war bombings, meaning some aspects of culture has been lost on the islands.
The Rai stones on Yap symbolise not only an alternative way of determining value and using money, but also, it’s authentic culture and the beauty of the island’s history and separateness from certain aspects of western society. The alternative perception of what money truly is and how the value of the Rai stones is determined is distanced from western money giving a unique wonder and beauty to the island of Yap.
1. Scott Fitzpatrick with stone money (photo by: Scott Fitzpatrick)