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Stone Money from Yap


Image Courtesy of David McCarthy

Giant doughnut-shaped stone coins standing as high as 12 feet tall and weighing as much as five tons each are still being used as currency in some parts of the world. One of these places is the island of Yap. And one thing is for certain; Yapese people are not shy about showing off the amount of money they have.

Somewhere in the Pacific Ocean, there is a group of Islands that belong to Micronesia, where the island of Yap is located. Covering an area of about 100 square kilometers, these islands are home to about 12,000 people. There are four main languages spoken here (including English). The people who inhabit these islands are separated into seven different tribes (or classes) and the color of their coverings usually indicates which tribe they belong to.

At one time, Yap was the epicenter of a large trading network of the surrounding islands. People would use huge stones known as Rai to trade amongst each other, especially for large transactions. The smaller stones were usually carried by two men; however, some of the larger coins, measuring up to 12 feet high, were carried by several men holding a strong, thick pole that went through the center of the coin.

Rai stones were originally carved from quarries or caves in the island of Palau, located about 400 kilometers away. Rai stones were made out of limestone due to the material's beautiful shiny finish and because it stood out more than any other object known on the island. Once the Rai stones were completed, they would be transported to Yap. Transporting these stones would take about a week and sometimes up to two weeks for delivery, as the men had to travel through difficult terrain. The stones were transported through the open ocean in canoe-towed barges and the larger the stone, the higher its face value. Also, the amount of time and effort it took to transport the stone affected its value. At times, the men transporting the Rai stones would die during the journey. This loss of life increased the value of the stone depending on how many men were lost and for which particular Rai stone.

The stones are used mostly for expensive transactions, such as buying land or property. In other instances they were purchased as status symbols. Oftentimes, wealthy owners would place the stones outside their residence for others to see. Most stones are considered to be expensive, even the smaller ones; a 10-inch coin is worth about $6,000.

Today, the most common currency traded in Yap is the U.S dollar. When Rai stones are used as currency they usually remain in the same location, thus showing that a transaction has been made. Many Rai stones are located near banks, where they are arranged in lines making up walkways. Others are placed somewhere visible in a village or located outside meeting houses.

The Island of Yap has become a popular tourist area. Some believe this is due to the amount of stones on the islands. These large doughnut-shaped stones attract a lot of attention and people travel great lengths to see them in person. When they initially invented the Rai stones, they introduced them in order to facilitate transactions by creating a form of currency to be accepted by the local tribes. This evolved into a magnificent marketing ploy as these large stones have attracted tourists from around the world.

Ancient Miscellaneous