A lot of us get annoyed when our wallets are overburdened with bulky coins, but just imagine how it would be if those coins were 12 feet in length and weighed almost 9,000 lbs. You might think that’s purely a hypothetical that will never happen, but clearly you have never been to Yap.
Yap is a small island in Micronesia, known to the world primarily for its peculiar currency – giant round disks known as Rai stones. The value of the disks was established hundreds of years ago when Yapese people found limestone on Palau. They carved the limestone into disks and transported them back to Yap where the stones were, at first, merely appreciated for their beauty. However, as Yapese society progressed, they realized the need for a currency system and adopted their most precious commodity – the Rai stones – as their new currency.
Since limestone could not be found on Yap, it meant that acquiring new Rai stones was a long, arduous and difficult task that involved traveling to distant islands, dealing with numerous perils such as dangerous animals and hostile natives. In fact, the difficulty was one of the factors that originally conveyed Rai stones their value.
The stone money the Yapese are famous for are the giant doughnut-shaped disks, but not all Rai stones were this big. In fact, smallest ones were only a few inches in diameter so, effectively, the Yapese had currency of different denominations. Actually, size was just one factor that conferred the stones their value. Another factor was history which was unique for every stone. If a lot of people died during the trip to get the stone or if the disk was owned by a famous warrior or the village chief, it became more valuable.
Over the course of centuries, the oral history of a particular stone became much more important than its physical possession. It came to a point where it didn’t matter who actually possessed the physical stone. Ownership was passed down through oral tradition and, as long as everyone knew who the rightful owner of a Rai stone was, the location of the disk was irrelevant. This was helped by the fact that the largest stones required dozens of men to transport. According to oral legend, one large Rai stone was lost when the Yapese were transporting it by boat. The boat sank and the stone was lost to the bottom of the river, but the Yapese agreed that the stone still exists and kept trading it as if it was still in their possession.
A significant development took place in 1874 when an Irish-American sailor named David O’Keefe arrived on the island. He began trading in Rai stones and, using modern tools, made it much easier to manufacture and transport them. He would give the Yapese stones in exchange for other valuable commodities they possessed like sea cucumbers and copra (coconut meat). However, since many new stones were introduced in a short amount of time, they were less valuable than the ancient stones so the Yapese economy experienced a form of inflation.
The trade allowed O’Keefe to buy his own small island near Yap and live comfortably with a few Yapese wives despite having a family back home in Savannah. His adventures were the basis for a book and later a movie titled “Her Majesty O’Keefe”. Nowadays, many Rai stones are found in museums and the American dollar is the default currency in Yap, but transactions using the large disks still take place during traditional events like marriages.