It was in fairly modern times that money transformed from being purely a physical thing, tangible coins or paper changing hands, to an ethereal substance. Today, when money is used, it largely moves only in a digital sense and before the digital era, it may have changed hands without physically moving but instead by the stroke of a pen in a ledger. The middle state in this change from physical to abstract money can be found in the Pacific, on the island of Yap, where large cumbersome stones were nonetheless used as money. The rai stones, as they are known, were used in transactions without ever moving.
Yap, home to the Yapese people, is a Micronesian island forming one of the westernmost isles of the larger Caroline Islands archipelago. Though not technically an atoll of the sort common in the Pacific, Yap is nonetheless surrounded by reefs miles wide. First contact with European explorers likely occurred in the 16th century and Yap has lived under consecutive Spanish, German, Japanese, and American administrations just since the late 19th century. There are distinguishing features on Yap and perhaps chief among them are the stones. A visitor to Yap will notice hundreds of round stones scattered around the island. Despite their conspicuous presence, it wasn’t until the 19th century that much international attention was paid to them.
These are the ‘rai stones’ and their origins are unknown. One story credits a Yapese figure named Anagumang who is said to have discovered this stone in Palau, another island country. The stones came to be used as money but, unlike most forms of money, the stones were each unique. The smallest are a few centimeters wide but many are very large; some exceed three meters in diameter. These more massive stones typically have holes carved through their centers to make them more easily moved by use of a pole inserted through them. ‘More easily’ does not mean easy though.
One of the most surprising facts about the rai stones is that they didn’t even originate on the island. They had to be carried across the ocean on rafts. The rai stones were carried by the Yapese from Palau, four hundred kilometers to the southwest. It was there that the stone was quarried. This was a massive endeavor compared to the resources of the Yapese. Consider that four hundred Yapese men supposedly worked at just one quarry in the late 19th century and compare that to their population of around seven thousand. The stones were sometimes named after the person who quarried the rock in Palau or the person who shipped the final product back to Yap.
The rai stones were valued partly for their size, partly for their beauty, and partly for their irreplaceability. They needed to be imported as Yap lacked the limestone from which they were made. Stones were also distinguished by their provenance and story; some have engravings marking battles from two centuries ago.
The rai stones have been used as currency on Yap for generations. The value of stones was denominated in yar, a unit-of-account dating back to even older money in the form of pearl shells which had, by the early 20th century, been relegated to a form of money appropriate only for small transactions. When sailors would return from Palau with rai stones, the Yapese chiefs would assign value to the stones and keep some of them for themselves. The rest entered circulation, though circulation did not necessarily imply physical movement.
In the late 19th century, David Sean O’Keefe, an Irish-American resident on the island, got into the business of transporting rai stones from Palau to Yap on his schooner in exchange for copra, a coconut product he would sell in Hong Kong. Yapese would still do the quarrying but O’Keefe arranged the transport. His operation on the island allowed him to export 220 tons of copra annually. O’Keefe became wealthy doing this and, in the process, helped connect Yap, and its rai stones, to the global economy. He also brought larger stones to Yap than could have been carried on Yapese canoes and rafts.
Larger rai stones were more valuable but so were those whose stone was fine, white, and of close grain. As previously noted, larger stones also changed hands without being physically moved. Rather, upon a transaction, the recognized owner of a particular stone would change even if it continued to lie on its former owner’s property. There are also stories of a rai stone lying at the bottom of the sea comprising part of the wealth of one family. This stone was recognized by the islanders to be as valuable as it would be if it were on land. In any case, the size of the stones also discouraged theft, which was likely of even less concern to the owners of the undersea stone.
Payments and Fines
Determining the value of the rai stones in terms of other money is difficult because there were few exchanges of foreign currency into rai stones. Nonetheless, early foreign observers described the stones as being of ‘great value’. Around the late 19th and early 20th centuries, more precise valuations emerged. It was said that a stone three hand-lengths across was worth one pig between eighty and one hundred pounds (36-45 kilograms). A stone of this size was also said to be enough to purchase one thousand coconuts. Meanwhile, a stone six feet (1.8 meters) across could buy a large canoe.
When Yap came under German administration, Germany having purchased the archipelago from Spain, the islanders’ new government desired to improve paths on Yap. The Yapese chiefs were ordered by their new foreign rulers to repair these paths but the chiefs did not act on this. The German government thought to fine the chiefs for failing to maintain the roads but what were they to fine them exactly? The locals lacked money besides the rai stones and these could not easily be transported and they were useless to the Germans anyway.
The German administration found that a fine could still be implemented. They claimed some stones for themselves, painting on them a cross in black paint to announce this, and declared they would not return the stones until the roads were fixed. The roadwork was thereafter dutifully completed and the stones returned to their owners without ever moving.
To this very day, rai stones on Yap are still arranged in fields called stone money banks. At these banks, the stones change hands through marriage, conflicts, and apologies, the social occasions where exchanges of rai stones still carry value. Though they may now change owners in this era of heavy equipment, this continues to happen without any physical movement of the stones themselves. While still of social importance to the islanders, the stones became more commonplace and less valuable in trade, partly owing to David Sean O’Keefe’s operations on Yap. By 1929, the Japanese administration on the island counted 13,281 stones.
The Japanese administration of Yap marked the end of an era. One of the last rai stones to be brought to Yap for some time was delivered in 1932 and it would be destroyed in the construction of a Japanese airfield during the Second World War; others were lost to the construction of sea walls or piers. After the war, the island became a United Nations Trust Territory under American administration and many stones left the island, sold to collectors abroad interested in the stone money.
Today, the rai stones have been largely replaced by the U.S. dollar for most transactions. Nonetheless, they are still of traditional importance and some islanders still value their own holdings of rai stones. The stone money continues to be exchanged upon significant personal events like marriage and childbirth and a few rai stones are still made, ensuring the skills involved in carving them are retained.
The rai stones may seem peculiar partly because, at first glance at least, they appear to be a less-than-ideal form of money. They are too large to be easily moved, took substantial labor to produce, and were each unique. Whatever their weaknesses though, the rai stones were exchanged as money in a manner not at all foreign to modern eyes.
Today, we are very accustomed to thinking of money as something transacted through without necessitating any physical exchange. Instead, amounts are moved in intangible accounts similar to how the owner of a particular rai stone may change without so much as either party to a transaction paying a visit to the stone itself. Rai stones simultaneously illustrate the physical and non-physical aspects of money.
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1. Furness, William Henry. The Island of Stone Money: Uap of the Carolines. J.B. Lippincott, 1910.
2. Furness, William. “The Island of Stone Money.” The Economic Journal, vol. 25, no. 98, June 1915, pp. 281–283.
3. Gillilland, Cora Lee C. The Stone Money of Yap: A Numismatic Survey. Smithsonian Institution Press, 1975.
4. Poole, Robert Michael. “The Tiny Island with Human-Sized Money.” BBC Travel, BBC, 3 May 2018.