Mysterious stone structures dot this world, inspiring awe in anyone who happens to stumble across them. Today, the people who built them are often long since gone, leaving archeologists to piece together their purpose from what remains. For example, in Costa Rica, workers on banana plantations began to discover strange stone balls as they cut back the jungle to clear land for planting. First studied in 1930, the stone balls are as mysterious today as when they were first uncovered. Several hundred have been found, but even now their purpose for being built is unclear.
Older and more famous than the stone balls are the moai of Easter Island. These mute stone monoliths, most likely carved in the likeness of great chiefs, stand in lonely vigil over a ruined island. It is widely believed that the construction of the moai was what brought about the ecological devastation that ended the once thriving civilization of Easter Island.
Of course, not all mystery structures bring about the end of the civilization that builds them. A more modern megalith, built right here in the United States, was designed to survive the end of the world. The Georgia Guidestones are massive concrete slabs that are covered with instructions, written in several languages, for restarting civilization. Very little is known about who constructed them or why, proving that mysteries don’t have to be ancient to be puzzling and nearly unsolvable.
The stone wheels of the Yap, a people who live on a tiny island in the Pacific Ocean, would on the surface seem to be a mystery on par with the moai or the stone balls. Flat disks carved out of limestone, measuring anywhere from a foot to twelve feet in diameter and weighing up to as much as a car, these structures litter the island. However, there is no mystery to their usage, in part because the people of Yap still remain to tell us what they were used for. Strange as it sounds, the Yap used the giant stones for a startlingly mundane use: money.
Hundreds of years ago, Yap explorers ventured out across hundreds of miles of ocean in their bamboo canoes. It isn’t clear what they were seeking, although Polynesian cultures have a long history of exploration (which explains how they ended up living in some of the most remote places on earth.) What they found was the island of Palau, and a beautiful substance they had never seen before: limestone. The Yap secured rights to a limestone quarry from the people of Palau, and began to quarry the limestone with sea shell tools. The stone disks they produced–called “rai”–featured a large hole in the center, allowing bamboo poles to be inserted for transportation to their canoes.
The giant disks caused quite a stir back on their home island. The Yap decided the beautiful new objects would be a form of currency, a sign of wealth and status. They began to be “exchanged,” mostly for large deals like wedding dowries or as parts of political deals between villages. They rarely traded hands in reality though–the owners would agree that the rai had changed hands, and everyone would accept that the stone sitting in the village square (or wherever it happened to be) now belonged to a new owner.
A rai didn’t have to be in the village to be traded on the market. The Yap tell of one rai, of extraordinary size and quality, that was lost during transport. A storm kicked up while the disk was being moved from the quarry at Palau to Yap, and the men moving it were forced to cut it loose to survive. When they returned home, they told the story and everyone accepted it as true. So, a family could own this rai that was now under hundreds of feet of water. In fact, it was more valuable because of the story behind it. The value of a rai was determined not only by its size and beauty, but by the story behind it. If the disk was particularly difficult to move, or if people died while it was being quarried or transported, it was worth more.
Not as strange as it sounds
It’d be pretty easy for a modern American to mock the Yap for their strange form of currency. After all, why would you want to use giant rocks for currency? After all, they’d be pretty difficult to carry with you to, say, the grocery store when it was time to restock the cupboards. Cashiers would have to either use a forklift or be power lifters in a world where rai were money!
But that is because we are used to using dollars and change as our unit of exchange (also add to that the fact that moderns tend to look down on more “primitive” cultures.) But, really, our system of currency isn’t all that much different. When you store your money in a bank, it isn’t sitting in a safe with your name on it waiting for you to return. Banks use that money to lend to other people; your bank account is just an agreement between you and the bank that “x” amount of money is yours. You take it on faith that the bank will have that money. It’s the same with stocks–you buy a share in a company, but it isn’t as if you can go up to, say, Google Headquarters, and lay claim to a corner of the building as “yours.” It’s just an agreement between you and the company that you own “x” amount. It’s the same with bonds and other financial instruments.
But everyone knows that, right? What about supposedly more tangible assets, like gold? Gold is rare, shiny, and doesn’t corrode. People have drooled over it for thousand of years, coveting it as an incredibly valuable substance. It has been the basis of currency for many cultures for thousands of years. But why is it valuable? Again, it’s rare, people like how it looks, and it stays looking good for a long time. The same could be said for limestone among the Yap–many of the stones have been passed down from family to family for generations. It “holds its value,” making it like gold to the Yap. Limestone can’t be found on Yap, but can only be transported from Palau with a great amount of effort, so it is definitely rare. Basically, the rai are the Yap’s version of gold.
So, the rai system is not as strange as it looks on the surface. The Yap developed an economic system similar in a lot of ways to our own, just with an emphasis on a different type of material. These days, though, the Yap mainly use the American dollar for their monetary needs. The rai are only exchanged as part of traditional ceremonies. And yes, someone still owns that rai sitting there on the bottom of the ocean.
Atlas Obscura, “Cash, Card, or Car-Sized Stone: Payment Options on the Island of Yap.” Slate.com. Slate, June 25, 2014. http://www.slate.com/blogs/atlas_obscura/2013/10/15/cash_card_or_car_sized_stone_payment_options_on_the_island_of_yap.html
Friedman, Milton. “The Island of Stone Money.” Working Papers in Economics E-91-2 (1991).
Goldstein, Jacob. “The Island of Stone Money.” NPR.org. December 10, 2010. NPR. June 25, 2014. http://www.npr.org/blogs/money/2011/02/15/131934618/the-island-of-stone-money