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The Land of Big Money

The Land of Big Money

 The Land of Big Money

By Awake! writer in Guam

OUT in the vast Pacific Ocean, you will find Yap. Tropical beauty and a comfortable climate make this cluster of islands a welcome port for travelers in search of privacy. But visitors are often quite surprised at the fact that people leave their savings out in the street. And this is big money!

Throughout the islands, you will notice stone disks in front of buildings and along paths. Those disks, called rai in the local language, make up the native currency of Yap. Although some people keep their stone money at home, most use village “banks.” At these institutions, no security guards are on the watch and no tellers are helping customers. You may not even find a building. Instead of securing money in vaults, these “banks” hold their assets outside. There, leaning against coconut trees and walls are more stone disks, each with a hole at its center. These pieces are up to 12 feet [4 m] in diameter and can weigh more than five tons.

Where you live, you may carry change in your pocket, but here, coins are so big that they cannot fit in a car. None of this stone money has been made since 1931. Yet, it is still legal tender on the islands. How did this curious currency come into existence?

A Difficult Acquisition

Legend has it that in the distant past, a group of Yapese voyagers landed on the island of Palau and obtained some beautiful stones. They took them back to Yap, and there the people decided to use them as currency. They began carving the stones into  disks the shape of the full moon but with a hole in the middle.

The Yapese were very particular about the material they used. They preferred minerals that we now know as aragonite and calcite. Aragonite, found in deposits in the ground, is a substance also found in pearls, and calcite is the main component in marble. Both are attractive when skillfully carved, but neither is found on Yap. So the Yapese continued going to Palau to obtain stones. Palau lies some 250 miles [400 km] to the southwest of Yap, a journey of five days across dangerous seas in outrigger canoes.

On Palau, the Yapese obtained the local chief’s permission and then went about the work of quarrying solid rock. Using primitive hand tools, they cut slabs of stone from underground caves and carved the slabs into a disk shape. To carve just one piece of money, the hammering and chiseling continued for months and sometimes even years!

Holes were cut in the rocks to accommodate stout poles on which the stones could be carried down to the shore. There the newly carved money was loaded onto canoes or bamboo rafts. To transport a large piece, the workers stood it up in the water and then built a large raft around it. With wind in the sails and strong arms on the oars, they then towed the raft carrying the newly carved wealth back to Yap.

All this work was done by hand, and the process was dangerous. Indeed, many were injured or killed while cutting and moving massive chunks of rock on dry land. And the voyage back to Yap held its own perils. Stone money is visible on the ocean floor around Yap and Palau, proof that not all the treasure nor everyone doing the hauling made it to Yap safely. That sunken money, however, belongs to someone on Yap. It has value just as the stone disks on dry land do.

How Much Is It Worth?

After carrying out a business deal in which rai changes hands, the new owner generally leaves the stones where they are. Many have been in their present location for decades and are a long distance from the homes of their current owners. Stealing is not a problem.

 If a thief had his eye on a stone coin, he would first have to find the strength to take it and then be brazen enough to do so. The latter would be more difficult, since the neighbors know who owns each stone wheel, and they have deep respect for property rights.

How do you determine the value of a piece of stone money? First, you note its size, its natural beauty, and the quality of its sculpture. Then you consider its history. How old is it? Was it very difficult to quarry and carve? Were lives endangered or lost when men took it on the voyage to Yap? Finally, what is the social status of those involved in the transaction? Stone money in the hands of a chief has more value than that owned by a commoner.

In 1960, when a foreign bank purchased a piece of stone money measuring five feet in diameter, the history of that piece became known to the outside world. Apparently it had been in circulation since the 1880’s. It had once served as payment to workers for the construction of a house. On another occasion it had been given by people of one village to neighboring villagers for their performance of a special dance. And later a householder had exchanged it for a supply of tin roofing. All these transactions were carried out without moving the stone from its original location, and no written records were kept. The coin’s ownership and history were common knowledge on Yap.

Bigger Is Not Always Better

When rai was introduced hundreds of years ago, the stone coins were so rare and valuable that only chiefs could own them. Then, in the late 19th century, iron tools and cargo ships made it possible to carve and transport many more of these coins, including the large ones. While the newer pieces are larger than the older ones, they are less valuable, since they were not produced in the traditional, more painstaking way.

In 1929 an official count revealed that there were 13,281 stones​—numbering more than the population of the islands! World War II changed that. Troops confiscated much of the stone currency and broke some of it up to construct airstrips and fortifications. Only half the stone disks survived. Then souvenir hunters and private collectors made off with many of the disks. Today, the government regards the stone money as a cultural treasure and gives it legal protection.

On Yap, money does not grow on trees, nor are the roads paved with gold. But the people still leave their wealth on the street for everyone to see!

[Maps on page 20]

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[Picture on page 21]

Stone money “bank”

[Picture on page 22]

Some pieces of money on Yap can weigh more than five tons