By Raquel Bagnol
A currency system began centuries ago when Yap islanders sailed to Palau to carve what would become the famous stone disks from limestone called “rai” or stone money.
In 2019, Dr. Scott M. Fitzpatrick, an archaeologist, and Stephen McKeon, a finance professor at the University of Oregon, published a paper in Economic Anthropology Online, in which they theorized that bitcoin could have been rooted in Yap’s stone money.
Fitzpatrick and McKeon recounted the history of rai based on the islanders’ oral tradition of telling stories that were sometimes fused with myths and legends.
Yap islanders sailed to Palau 452 kilometers away to quarry limestone from caves and rock shelters in the Rock Islands. Yapese navigators Anguman and Fatha'an , who were the first to discover limestone in Palau, tasked their men with cutting the stone into fish shape. The form did not turn out well, so they experimented with other shapes.
One night, Anguman looked up into the night sky, gazed at the full moon and decided he liked the moon’s circular shape. He ordered the men to carve the stone into a wheel shape. However, they had problems carrying the massive discs, so they carved a hole in the center to make it easier to carry on bamboo poles on the shoulders of men and transport on rafts pulled behind their canoes.
Fatha'an finished making rai first, so Anguman told him to return the first batch to Yap. Fatha'an set out, but he was afraid Anguman would use magic to make a typhoon and kill him. Fatha'an did not go straight to Yap. Instead, he hid in an island called “Ramith,” Yapese for "the place of hiding."
A few days later, a typhoon came. After a week, Anguman set sail on the rough sea from Palau to Yap. This time, Fatha'an created a typhoon that split Anguman's canoes into pieces. Some of the stone money sank, but Anguman was still able to bring some discs of the heavy stone on his rafts back to Yap.
Fatha'an eventually came out of his hiding place, collected some of the stone money from Anguman's broken rafts and added them to his own collection. It was not an easy voyage back to Yap because of the rough and stormy sea.
Yap's stone money was the largest portable object in the Pacific ever transported in the open ocean. Upon arrival in Yap, the rai was presented to the chiefs and displayed in prominent locations called “stone money banks.”
The stone money became famous and valuable in Yap, creating a demand for more. Oral tradition tells how people started competing and sabotaging other voyages to Palau.
Rai was used for different purposes, such as ceremonial gifts in marriage, as a ransom for a corpse, and as currency to buy loincloths and pandanus mats from neighboring islands.
The value of rai depends on several factors such as shape, size, quality, efforts expended and method of transport.
A rai carved by a popular person had a higher value.The value would go up if people died during the carving or transportation process or if the stone was quarried from an area that was extremely difficult to access.
Because rai stones were so big and heavy, ranging from a few inches to 12 feet in diameter and weighing thousands of pounds, they were not typically moved around. A person gifted with a rai would leave it on display in a public place. No one would dispute its ownership even if it changed hands but stayed in the same place. An oral ledger was used to track who owned a rai to maintain security and transparency.
Rai quarrying continued until the mid- to late-1800s. However, things changed when the Europeans got involved. Ship captain David Dean O'Keefe settled in Yap during the German occupation. He befriended Alfred Tetens, a German captain who had established a trading outpost on the island.
Tetens tried to persuade the Yapese to produce dried coconut meat, or copra, for trading, but the Yapese resisted his efforts. Copra was then a valuable commodity in the East Asian markets. That's when O'Keefe came in. He bargained with the Yapese. He brought in larger ships, metal tools and other incentives to entice Yapese workers to Palau and bring rai back to Yap in exchange for copra.
Originally, the Yapese carved rai using traditional tools such as shells and stone. The Europeans introduced metal and modern carving tools, speeding up the process of making stone money. Transporting rai from Palau became easier and faster with the larger ships.
Rai quarrying became a profitable venture for the islanders, so it became more common, leading to inflation and eventually, the rai’s devaluation.
Shortly after, the Germans began seizing rai stones and marking them with a black cross.
From 1915 to 1945, the Japanese took control of Yap and imposed their own currency. The Japanese sometimes used rai as ballast, anchors, or for construction work.
Today, several thousands of rai in different sizes are scattered all over Yap and are still used as traditional payment for debts, retribution, marriages and other purposes. The largest rai on Rumung Islands measures 12 feet in diameter with a 20-inch thickness and weighs 4,000 kilograms.
For decades, anthropologists, economists and financial experts studied stone money, which according to cryptocurrency enthusiasts had the same principles as bitcoin’s manufacturing and valuation system.
Satoshi Nakamoto (a pseudonym) published a white paper, titled "Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System," in 2008 introducing bitcoin. In 2009, Nakamoto released the software that launched the network and the first cryptocurrency units.
In less than 10 years, bitcoin has emerged as the world's most widely recognized and highly valued cryptocurrency, paving the way for numerous similar currencies to emerge.
Raquel Bagnol is a longtime journalist. She worked as a reporter for Marianas Variety on Saipan and Island Times in Palau. Send feedback to email@example.com