On the Pacific Island of Yap Citizens Used What Unconventional Item as Currency?
Answer: Massive Stone Discs
On the island of Yap located in the Caroline Islands in the western Pacific Ocean, you’ll find something that is both a curiosity and delight to the casual reader and economist alike: an ancient currency system based entirely on enormous stone disks.
Centuries ago, explorers from the island of Yap adventured to distant islands and quarried stone disks, some of them weighing thousands of pounds, and brought them home to Yap. The stone disks are known as “Rai stones” and the reason behind their initial creation is unknown, but historically the Yapese people valued the disks because the material looked like quartz (they were the shiniest objects around).
The entire process was extremely difficult and involved the danger of the original journey, potential confrontations with other tribes, building rafts to float the disks, towing them home via sail-driven canoes, and then transporting them on the island of Yap itself, all of which contributed to how valuable the disks were to the Yapese peoples.
At some point in the history of the island, the disks took on the role of currency and would be exchanged for other items of great value (like the purchase of land holdings, a home, or between families when their children married). What’s even more curious about the system is that because of their great weight, the stones were simply left where they were and their ownership was publicly changed.
Further, the original stones have retained their value. In the 1870s, a sea captain by the name of David O’Keefe imported a bunch of stones from the nearby islands, but the new stones were not perceived to have as high a value as the old stones. The new stones, in the eyes of the Yapese, were much less valuable because the effort and risk taken in acquiring them was much lower.
Today the Yapese use the U.S. dollar for daily expenses and purchasing, but the stones are still used for traditional and ceremonial occasions like marriage, transfers of land titles, political deals, etc.
Image courtesy of Yusuke Kawasaki.