Historically money has come in many different forms. Granted people are used to money in the forms of metal coins and paper currency. However the people of a particular Pacific island had what would have to be the most unusual form of money known to exist. I am referring to the island of Yap in the Carolina Islands located in the Pacific ocean.
What really makes their particular form of money unusual is the material it was made from. Their money was made from stone, but not just any kind of stone. The type of stone that they used is called aragonite, which is a type of soft calcite. This material was primarily quarried on Babeldaop in the Palau chain of islands some 250 miles away from Yap.
Each piece of stone money is valued not only on its size and the craftsmanship taken to fabricate it, but also the peril involved in transporting it from Badelaop to Yap. Some Yap islanders were reported to have perished in the efforts to navigate the stones by raft or canoe across the treacherous ocean between Yap and Palau. Known pieces measure from just a few inches in diameter to the largest at some 12 feet in diameter.
The largest recorded piece is on the state of Yap island of Rumung, from which foreigners have been prohibited from visiting since 1965. One piece owned by a collector has a 6foot diameter and was made for the First National Bank of Sweden. At one time the island of Yap was a trust territory under U.S. administration. Since the late 1970s, Yap has been a part of the Federated States of Micronesia.
The people of Yap are believed to have used their stone money for several centuries. An unknown number of the stone money left Yap during the 1950s in the possession of American military and civil service personnel. How many more have been spirited off the island is unknown.
The value of the stones depended on factors such as shape, quality, type of stone, kind of tools used to quarry the stone, difficulty to obtain stone, thickness, hardness and pedigree. The Yapese measured the stones in terms of spans--the length of the outstretched fingers. The smallest unit was determined by a finger’s width. The largest unit was the fathom, calculated by one’s outstretched arm.
The stones were used between villages in trade, for political payments, or even to buy a village’s support. They may have also been used as part of a bride’s dowry. The stones were transported on land on Yap by several men, using bamboo poles inserted through the center hole in each stone. The West’s familiarity with Yap money started with the 1872 arrival at Yap of Capt. David Dion O’Keefe.