On our island tour of Yap, we arrive at the small village of Gilman in the southwest of the Micronesian island. Right next to the road, we enter the stone money bank. A path on grass with by a curved line of trees against which the stone money disks are resting. Our guide now explains the history and usage of the stone money for which Yap is famous. We already know the Yapese used limestone quarries on Palau, over 400 kilometres away, to carve out their enormous disks. We now learn that originally, the money was shaped like a whale, which the Yapese call rai - the name still used for stone money. Soon, the Yapese carved out disks with a hole - resembling the moon. The stone disks proved something valuable that the Yapese could use for local transactions. The value of the money is determined by various factors, where size does not really matter. More than anything, it is the story behind the disk, the suffering of the sailors who transported it (more precisely, the number of sailors who died on the journey), the age, and its unique history that give value to any of the pieces of stone money.
In general, the stone money carved in the period of David O'Keefe, an Irish-American who came to Yap at the end of the 19th century, is worth much less. He took a Chinese junk from Hong Kong, and used it to dominate the copra trade: the Yapese paid him for enormous disks of stone money with their valuable export product. He also offered new instruments to carve the large stone disks. It is still easy to see the result to this very day: the stone money carved in this period is bigger, more perfectly shaped, has a perfect hole in them. Their value, however, is lower: it took less effort to carve them, and considerable less risk to take them to Yap. This inflation of the stone money eventually caused its usage to stop during the German administration of Yap in the early 20th century.
Now, the money looks extremely user-unfriendly in both size and weight: they can be over 3 metres in diameter, and weigh several tonnes. The stone money bank we are seeing now is, therefore, merely a repository of stone money disks. Every village has one, and once a disk has arrived at the bank, it stays there. In case of a transaction, the previous and new owner of the stone money come to an agreement. Everyone in a clan or village knows the owner of every disk in the bank, because a transfer is done publicly, in the presence of elders or chiefs. A stone money disk might even be owned by someone from the other side of the island. Obviously, the stone money is not used to buy everyday food items, or even luxury items; instead, they are used for settling disputes, for buying land or even influence in another village, paying tax, or even a wife. Contrary to banks all over the world, the stone money banks in Yap don't have safes, and the money is simply there, leaning against a tree. Yet, no one would steal the money: this is simply something considered not done on Yap where customs are deeply rooted in every inhabitant. So much so that, even in the modern age of currencies and plastic money, stone money is still being used on Yap.
Around the World in 80 Clicks
Personal travel impressions both in words and images from Gilman stone money bank (Federated States of Micronesia). Clicking on the pictures enlarges them and enables you to send the picture as a free e-card or download it for personal use, for instance, on your weblog. Or click on the map above to visit more places close to Gilman stone money bank. Read more about this site.