When I told people I was going to Yap—this strange, unheard of land in the Pacific, where women are expected to cover their thighs, but not their breasts, and you have to carry a green stick or leaf around with you so as not to be suspected of looking for trouble—the most common reaction was “Huh,” followed by surreptitious googling it to see if I was making it up.
That is, until an economist friend heard about my trip there. Economists know about Yap. Tell an economist you’ve been to Yap, and you’ll have one excited financial analyst on your hands. I think it’s probably something like telling a lawyer that Helen Palsgraf was your great aunt. Apparently, econ scholars studying abstract concepts involved in the idea of “money” read a lot about Yap.
Why? Because, Yap is the Island of Stone Money. We’ve all absorbed knowledge from books, cartoons and movies, that various ancient cultures around the world used shells or beads or pelts or camels or what-have-you for trading, before modern currency, represented by coins and, later, notes, was invented, leaving us with vestigial expressions like “that’s a lotta clams!” to mean something is expensive.
Well, Yap has one of the most intact ancient, native cultures in the world, and they still use stone money. They don’t walk around with pockets full of pebbles. On Yap, big, round chunks of limestone with a hole in the center are money. And I don’t mean they are money as in “that’s so money,” in the parlance of hip hop and, my favorite, the movie Swingers:
(Click here if the video doesn’t show above.)
Or, maybe I do mean it that way, to the extent Vince Vaughn said “money” to mean something that is rare, attractive, desirable and therefore, valuable. Because Yap stone money is certainly not susceptible to our usual definition of money as fungible currency.
To get to the bottom of the stone money situation, I pestered Al, the owner of the cottage I rented on Maap Island in Yap, and other locals I met, with endless questions about how the stone money is used, how its value is determined, what kind of records are kept about ownership, etc. Al’s big brother is one of the high chiefs on Yap—responsible for teaching young Yapese the ancient cultural ways, and for keeping track of all his people’s stone money—and Al is apparently next in line, so he was a great source of information. (He was also super patient with my stupid questions, like “how do you give change in stone money?”) Here’s what I learned:
The Yapese are great sea voyagers. They build these amazing, sturdy canoes and go all over the Pacific, navigating by the stars and other mystical means that are still taught and practiced today. A group of guys from Al’s village went all the way to Japan in one of these canoes.
Anyhoo, several hundred years ago, some Yapese fishermen got stranded several hundred miles away in Palau, now famous for its limestone rock islands. There’s no limestone on Yap, and these fellows thought it was super pretty stuff. So, while they were waiting for the winds to change so they could get home, they hacked out a piece of limestone and used shell tools to carve it into the shape of a whale, or a “rai” in Yapese. When they got home, they gave the stone rai to the chief, and told the tale of their great adventure, and everyone went ‘ooh…aahhh’ at the pretty rock. It was exotic and rare in their eyes. Precious. Money.
After that, the Yapese would make journeys to Palau to get more of this money. These were long, perilous voyages. People died, boats were lost. Palauans tried to stop them from nibbling away at their island. The stones were heavy and difficult to transport. In short, the stones were hard to get, which just made them more valuable.
The stone money pieces were called “raay” or “rai” in Yapese, i.e., the word for whale, after the shape of the original one. But, after that first one, they made them round, in the shape of the full moon, with a hole in the center to facilitate transportation. (You stick a bamboo pole through the hole and use it to roll the stone money like a wheel—not really feasible if they were still shaped like Shamu.)
Then, an American dude showed up in Yap in the late 1800s—David O’Keefe—with big ships and tools and machinery he imported from Hong Kong. He revolutionized the production and transport of the rai, inflating their numbers on Yap, thus devaluing them, and basically spoiling all the fun. If there’s lots of them, they aren’t rare and precious anymore. For this reason, in the early part of the 1900s, they stopped bringing new rai to Yap.
How Much Is It Worth?
When you look at the rai with western, industrialized-nation eyes, it seems logical that the nice, smooth, large ones should be the most valuable, and the ugly little, ragged-edged, toads would be the least valuable. Not so. The value of a piece of stone money is based on its individual story. The riskier the voyage to get that particular rai, the more lives lost, the more blood, sweat and tears shed in its creation, the bigger adventure getting it home, the more valuable the rai.
Accordingly, the bigger, shinier, machine-tooled ones with perfectly cylindrical center bores that O’Keefe zipped up and delivered, lickety split, on his big, fancy ships…not so valuable. The uneven, hand-hewn little guys that look like those salt licks you put in hamster cages, after the hamsters have been at them a while, are more likely to have a harrowing story behind them, and thus be more valuable. So, there’s your treasure, right there, in the symbol of the adventure.
It’s the job of the chief of the village where the stone money is owned or located to know the story of each rai under his supervision. So, when the owner goes to use the stone money, the chief comes along and imparts that rai’s story so the recipient can understand its value.
So, when I asked Al, “so, how much is that one over there worth?” he furrowed his brow and, after a thoughtful pause, said not to think of it that way. It’s not like you can say this one over here is worth $500 and that one over there is worth $130. There is no stone money exchange rate, per se. They can’t be converted on xe.com. There’s no workers’ comp-like chart that indicates “2 year voyage+8 fatalities+typhoon on the way home = $325.” It’s much more abstract than that. Just think of them as “valuable things,” and that they are “worth” as much as the person accepting them is willing to trade for the honor of “owning” the respect due the underlying story. The value is entirely cultural. Chew on that.
Spending Stone Money
Obviously, you don’t roll your stone money down to the grocery store and expect to use it to buy Spam and Folgers crystals (which is pretty much all they have in the stores the week before the monthly supply ship comes). There’s no stone money ATM to hit on your way to fill up the gas tank or restock your betelnut supply. For commodities, daily use type stuff, and most modern business transactions, they use regular, fungible currency. The U.S. Dollar, in fact.
But stone money is still used today in many ways. It’s used for apologies, to settle disputes. The more serious the dispute, the more valuable rai it’s going to take to settle it. It’s used to request a bride’s hand in marriage, and as dowry. It’s used as offerings to chiefs, as tribute, and shows of respect.
It’s also used, in combination with modern dollars, to sweeten a proposal on land transactions, or business deals. If you’re selling a piece of land, and two people offer you the same purchase price, but only one is offering some stone money on top, well, you know who is getting the property. The deal with the addition of stone money is a better deal, to the Yapese. It has respect in it.
Stone money is basically a cultural currency. So, it’s used in transactions that have a cultural aspect or meaning.
Who Owns It?
Stone money can be owned by individuals or groups, villages or clans, just like any other tangible thing. Usually, but not always, if a rai is sitting in front of a house or a store, it belongs to the owner of that home or business. But, the ownership of the rai you see along the roads, or in front of the village men’s houses, is not determined by its location.
Each village in Yap has a “men’s house,” where only men are allowed to enter, for meetings or to socialize with each other, or just to hang out in peace and quiet with no women around. The more important villages also have women’s houses, but those are less common.
Here is a group of Yapese women rehearsing a traditional dance and song for the 2014 Yap Day festival in front of the Women’s House in a village on Maap Island:
(Click here if video doesn’t show above.)
Stone money is usually found on the ceremonial grounds around these village men’s and women’s houses. The collections of stone money at the village houses are called “maraal,” or stone money banks. The maraal pictured here is one of the larger stone money banks in Yap. It is the responsibility of the chief of each village to know who owns each rai in the bank, and the owner may or may not live in that village.
Obviously, the bigger the rai, the harder it is to move. Even the small ones are pretty hefty. So, often, when ownership of a rai changes hands, it does not have to change location, and usually doesn’t. But, the ownership transfer is conducted in front of the whole village, so everyone will know that, say, Norman is transferring this particular rai to Betty, or to her clan. There’s no need to move it to Betty’s house, or to the stone money bank in her village, it can stay in Norman’s village. Everyone knows it’s Betty’s now. Indeed, the Yapese take great pride in owning a rai that is located outside their village.
In fact, there’s apparently one at the bottom of the ocean that fell off a boat on the way back to Yap during a storm, and the chief over the sailors who lost it decided…close enough. That’s still good. Great story, in fact. So, that submerged rai belongs to someone, and is actually quite valuable, even though the owner has never seen it. It’s sitting safely on the ocean floor, drawing interest. Well…interest, as in, that’s interesting, not 0.3% APR.
I asked Al if there were any records kept, in case a chief died unexpectedly, or to have a way to resolve any disputes over rai ownership, and he said “No. People just know.” When I asked what would keep someone from stealing a piece of stone money, and making up his own story so he could inflate its value and trade with it, or manufacturing a claim to ownership of a given rai without basis by just saying “that’s mine!” he said, “People don’t do that. The chiefs would know. People would know. It just wouldn’t work.” The chiefs know the story, location and ownership of every rai in their care, and woe betide anyone who tries to scam them. Transfers are done in public so everyone knows the score. It’s the Yapese fraud detection program.
That’s so money.