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The Giant Stone Coins of Yap

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Paper money is a relatively recent invention.  It was first used in China around the 13th century, and was later adopted in Europe and elsewhere.  For a long time, paper money was viewed with suspicion.  The reason was that it wasn’t “real”.  Sure, the paper said you had so many pounds or francs or marks or dollars or whatever, but who was backing up that paper?  It was usually a private bank, so if that bank went bankrupt, your paper money was worthless.  Gold and silver were trustworthy—you could always take coins with you.  This is the way much of the world worked for a long time.  In fact, it wasn’t unusual to circulate gold and silver coins from ancient Rome and Mesopotamia as recently as the 19th century.  Ultimately, it was about the value of the metal.

Metal isn’t the only thing that can have value ascribed to it.  After all, gold and silver are only valuable because enough people agree that they are; these metals aren’t good for anything practical.  (Well, gold would be an ideal metal for electrical wire, since it’s soft and malleable and conducts electricity well, but it’s never used for this purpose, specifically because it’s so rare.)  Societies have sometimes agreed to use shells or beads as money, and even stones.  As long as someone takes what you give them as payment, it’s legitimate.  The agreement is what’s important.

On the island of Yap in Micronesia, locals have long agreed that limestone is valuable.  Limestone doesn’t occur naturally on Yap, so that’s the draw.  The nearest source of limestone to Yap are the limestone mines on the island of Palau, 280 miles away.  The Yapese would come to Palau to trade.  The Palauans weren’t interested in the rocks, themselves, so if the Yapese wanted to dig them up, they were welcome to.  They just had to pay for it.  For the privilege of digging limestone quarries on Palau, the Yapese had to pay them in beads or coconuts or manual labor—typical capitalist transactions.  The Yapese would then load their limestone into their canoes and sail back to Yap.  On Yap, the limestone was referred to as rai, the coin of the realm.

Rai stone was originally cut in the shape of a fish, and a hole was carved in middle.  Eventually the Yapese came to prefer a simpler circle, possibly because they were easier to carry.  Some of the rai was very easy to carry—the smallest of these stone coins were about seven or eight centimeters across.  And the biggest… well, they got bigger.

There is no standard size for a rai stone, but what’s generally accepted is that the larger the stone, the more valuable it is.  Rai stones can be larger than the coins used in most countries—much larger.  Yap is famous for its extremely large coins, the largest of which is 12 feet around, 1½ feet thick, and weighs over 4 tons.  It’s not the sort of coin you can lose in the couch cushions.

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A Yapese coin.  You’re going to need bigger pockets.

Money of this size might seem impractical.  It would be difficult to move one of these coins in order to spend it, so what good is it?  Well, that gets back to the question of agreement.  If everyone agrees on what something’s value is, then trading it is easy.  If you own one of these large rai stones and you want to spend it, all you have to do is say that you’re giving it to someone else, and it’s theirs.  The rai stone doesn’t have to move in order to be spent, and their size protects them from being stolen in the first place.  Once you say that you’re giving your 12-foot rai stone to someone, word of mouth spreads around the island, and that’s how the new ownership of the stone is established.  These stones have histories, too: the new owner knows their previous owners’ names.  Obviously these coins aren’t for everyday transactions like the smaller rai are.  A rai stone might be used to buy a house, or serve as a dowry.  Ownership transfers regularly, if not every day, like a smaller rai would.

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A slightly more manageable Yapese coin.

As you can imagine, transporting these massive rai stones over 280 miles of open ocean in a canoe could be treacherous.  Accidents do happen, and in one instance, a very large rai stone sank to the bottom of the ocean while in transit to Yap.  It never made it to Yap, but everyone agreed that the rai stone is at the bottom of the ocean.  Even though no one in living memory has ever laid eyes on that stone, they still agree that it must have been very large, and its ownership is transferred just like the other massive rai that made it to Yap.

Today, as part of the Federated States of Micronesia, the main currency of Yap is the US dollar.  However, rai stones are still exchanged in traditional transactions among the Yapese.  The rai stone is looked at as the state symbol of Yap today.

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