Yapping About the Money: The Stone Money of Yap
Yap is typically identified by its unique use of extremely heavy set stones as currency. In fact, the island retains the appropriate moniker, “the island of stone money.” This is a summary of a blog posted on Economist’s View by Mark Thomas in 2005. In it, Thomas examines an article by Michael F. Bryan who works at the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland.
In the article titled “Island Money,” Bryan considers whether the stone money found on Yap actually abides by the true definitions of a currency. First off, the sizes of the stones vary in diameter from several inches to up to 12 feet. This means that the bigger ones can weigh several thousands of pounds! The stones themselves are referred to as rai and it took considerable manpower to quarry and transport these stone mammoths, an indication of their importance to the Yapese economy.
Before delving into the definitions of currency, there is an interesting story involving a shipwrecked Irish American named David O’Keefe, which will prove insightful to the discussion. After being shipwrecked, O’Keefe thought he could capitalize on the stone money system by employing his countrymen to trade stone for copra (coconut meat). He followed through with his “genius” plan and in doing so vastly increased the commonness of yap stone money. In response, the stones that O’Keefe sold were valued much less by the Yapese because they were obtained with relative ease, at least compared to the 400 straining men that it took to harvest the traditional, pre O’Keefe, monetary monoliths. So the value of each stone was not more or less based on the effort put into harvesting it.
Bryan's article explains the two definitions of money: a medium of exchange and unit of account. To be considered a functioning unit of exchange Yap stone money would have to be storable, portable, recognizable and divisible. The former two definitions are satisfied considering that some of the first mined stones can still be seen today! The rocks are hardly moved due to their weight, however they still changed hands frequently because people can easily identify each rock and its location, and thus attribute ownership. However, the stone money was not recognized by any other nearby island communities and it remained exclusive to the people of Yap. Also, it is pretty obvious that were not divisible, seeing that there were no power tools handy.
As for the unit of account consideration, people of Yap Island measured value in terms food crops and staples of their diet. It was also common for pearl shells to be used in barter trade. This was necessary because the value of a man sized stone was somewhere along the lines of an ENTIRE village and plantation.
Many anthropologists also referred to Yap’s economy as a “gift economy.” This meant that if a good is given away, there was the expectation that a reciprocation of equal value would occur in the future. As such, this puts Yap money in a very peculiar position in our classification of it as a form of currency. It abides by some of the definitions but it was not regularly used in everyday exchanges. Additionally, it had little aesthetic and ritualistic value. So why did so much labor go into mining them? It is not really known, but it sure is interesting!
Thomas, Mark. September 15th 2005. “Yapping About the Money: The Stone Money of Yap”