The tiny island with human-sized money

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Arriving on the tiny Micronesian island of Yap will fill even the most jaded traveler with a sense of awe. The single daily flight comes in over dense forests, taro swamp, shallow lagoons and a web of mangroves, all surrounded by fringing reef. But the real wonderment doesn’t come from the idyllic scenery, nor from the greeting by a Yapese girl in a traditional hibiscus skirt. It’s when you first come face-to-face with a piece of giant stone money.

Stone Money Bank

Stone Money

Stone Money

Hundreds of these extraordinary, human-sized discs of rock are scattered all over the island; some outside the island’s few hotels, others in rows close to the beach or deep in the forests. Each village even has a stone money bank where pieces that are too heavy to move are displayed on the malal (dancing grounds).

Some rai stones measure more than 3m in diameter

“My family owns five stone money of a good size,” said Falmed (Yapese just use one name), a taxi driver I flagged down to take me to Mangyol stone money bank in Yap’s eastern province of Gagil.

Five, it turns out, is a good haul, since many islanders don’t own any stones.

The unique stone currency has been in use here for several centuries, although no-one is quite certain when the concept began. What is known is that each one is different, and they are as heavy with meaning as they are in the volume of limestone, carved and voyaged by the Yapese all the way from Palau, an island nation 400km to the south-west. The very first pieces were used as gifts and shaped like a whale – thus named ‘rai’ stones – but they’ve evolved to become currency, including holes carved through the center to make them more transportable across the oceans.

The Yapese people

The Yapese people have used the rai stones as currency for centuries

“My forefather Falmed, he is the one who started to go to Palau first by canoe, and make this connection between Palau and Yap. So I carry his name,” Falmed told me as we hurtled along dirt roads past the sleepy capital of Colonia. Despite his sun-worn T-shirt and rickety car, his lineage is surprisingly significant. His distant forefather Falmed was a high chief powerful enough to commission a boat to Palau where he met with locals and gained access to a quarry site.

“He came back and called a meeting where he told the village to gather tuba, the local alcohol, to trade,” Falmed said. Within a month, he was back in Palau to start carving the stone as money.

The Yapese traveled 400km across the sea to carve the limestone discs from quarries in neighboring Palau

The issue was that Yap had no durable rock or precious metals with which to make coins. Instead, experienced Yapese sailors, commissioned mostly by wealthy high chiefs, would sail to Palau on bamboo rafts, and eventually, schooners, to load up with limestone from their quarries. Initially small, as techniques and tools improved, the coins became even larger than the people who would painstakingly carve them. When metal tools were introduced by European traders in the late 19th Century, quarrying was made easier, and reports from the 1880s claimed 400 Yapese men could be found working in just one quarry in Koror, Palau – a significant proportion of the population, which would have then been about 7,000 in total.

The Yapese people

On their return from Palau, the sailors would give the carved stone money to the high chiefs who would gather from different villages to welcome back the sailors and the stones. The chiefs would keep the larger ones and two-fifths of the smaller ones. They would also give names to some stones, usually choosing their own name or that of relatives, and confirm the stones as legitimate by giving a value based on an even older currency system: yar (pearl shell money). The stones could then enter circulation and be bought by anyone.

“If the chief says OK, 50 shell money for each stone money, if I have that I will make the trade and own one,” explained Edmund Pasan, a canoe builder from the northern province of Maap.

Today, shell money has been replaced by the almighty US dollar for day-to-day transactions like grocery shopping. But for more conceptual exchanges, like rights or customs, stones remain a vital currency for Yap’s 11,000 residents.

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