The stone wheels of Yap

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    Stone wheel of Yap - Banque de France collection
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    Yap stone presentation (Micronesia)

Made of circular discs of stone with a hole in the middle, the native money of the Island of Yap (in the Federated States of Micronesia) is probably the heaviest and most cumbersome currency ever used, at least in modern times. These unique “coins” were used exclusively in Yapese society, making the tiny island extremely popular with numismatists and economists alike.

The stones can still be seen today standing outside the houses on the island, and have become a popular attraction for tourists. Although there is no doubt that they were used as a currency, their history and why they were adopted remain something of a mystery. The first reference to Yapese stone money can be traced back to the 18th century, when they were mentioned in a letter from a Jesuit priest. However, it was only in the 19th century, with the increase in maritime travel, that they began to be cited with any frequency, and became better known.

The circular discs were made of aragonite, a crystal form of calcium carbonate which is only found on the Island of Palau some 400 kilometres from Yap. The stone was brought to the island as follows: a group of Yap inhabitants would be sent on an expedition to Palau by their village chief. With the permission of the king of Palau and in exchange for gifts, they would quarry the aragonite and carve it into wheels to be used as currency on their own island. The hole in the middle of the discs was designed to make them easier to transport - a wooden pole would be inserted into the hole so the wheels could be rolled along. The stones, also known as rai, were then taken back to Yap by canoe or on a raft pulled along by a canoe, a journey across high seas that could take up to five days. Back on Yap, the village chief would then distribute the stones among the residents, keeping the best and largest for himself.

It is difficult to know for certain how long these practices have existed 

Or why the people of Yap decided to adopt such an unusual currency. What we do know is that rai were considered extremely valuable, perhaps because of the beauty and rarity of the stone itself, or possibly for religious reasons as the discs resembled the moon which the Yap people worshipped.

Rai were a store of value and were used as a medium of exchange. According to some accounts, the smaller discs were used to pay for fish, a canoe or the roof of a house, while the larger ones could be used to pay for services provided by other families or villages or to reward an exceptional dancer, and could also be given as gifts to illustrious guests.

Due to their size and weight, the larger stones were generally left in place, even when they changed owner. The new owner would place a mark on the stone to show that it was now his property and, in a closed society where everybody knew each other, it was usually enough simply to announce the change of ownership to avoid any disputes. One frequently cited anecdote, first mentioned by the anthropologist W. Furness at the start of the 20th century, shows how the best rai had a highly symbolic value, especially the larger ones: according to Furness, one particular family on Yap was considered extremely rich and could obtain a variety of services, simply because it owned a large rai that had fallen into the water when it was being transported.

As they were difficult to make and transport

As they were difficult to make and transport, very few rai were produced, helping to keep the currency stable for a long time. This changed from the end of the 19th century, when the Yapese people first discovered the phenomenon of inflation: more rai were produced and their size increased, leading to a depreciation in their value. There were two technical reasons for this development: first, traditional shell tools were replaced by iron tools, making it easier to quarry the stone on Palau; second, the arrival of European steam boats made it easier to travel to and from Palau. One westerner, an Irish captain called O’Keefe, even managed to build up a lucrative business between 1872 and 1901, transporting Yap islanders to Palau and back with their quarried stones. In return, the island chiefs allowed him to use Yapese workers on his copra plantations.

After rarely exceeding 1 metre in diameter when they were transported by canoe, the stone wheels thus grew larger and heavier at the start of the 20th century, measuring up to 3.6 metres across, and weighing up to 6 tonnes.

The last Yap wheels were produced in 1931. Since then, the stones have retained their value in some transactions, even though the main currency on the island is the dollar. For example, the Yap branch of the Bank of Hawaii, which closed in 2002, allowed residents to use the stones as collateral for loans, and, at the start of the millennium, the governor of the island bought farmland using one of his oldest rai.
The Cité de l’Économie et de la Monnaie will exhibit a Yap stone from the Banque de France’s collection in its permanent courtyard. Measuring 45 cm across, it weighs around 30 kilos.

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Yap stone
Image copyright: Jean-Claude Camus / Banque de France

Presentation of the stone money of Yap (Micronesia)
Image copyright: Wikimedia

Published on 26 November 2013.