The exchange rate of stone money.
"C’mon kids. We’re going shopping" says the
lady of the house to her children. The four grown lads, her sons, pull a thick pole from the bushes, thread onto it
a huge coin, groaning lift it up on their shoulders, and the five of them set
of for the market. In fact, people didn’t really go to the market
like this, but more serious business was carried out in this manner in a
certain small nation lost in the Pacific Ocean. The group of Pacific
islands that currently belong to Micronesia, is called Yap. Yap,
together with a few of its neighboring islands have an area of under
100 square kilometers and are inhabited by 12 000 people who speak four
languages (plus English) and are segregated into seven social classes.
Incredibly, before whites came to the islands, Yap was the center of
a huge sea empire (as far as the area was concerned), and much of the
Pacific trade was concentrated right there.
It is not known what reason led to the use of this particular
currency, that really is one of a kind, in which the coins are huge
stone rounds called vai. Should the need arise, the vai could be
transported from place to place with the use of a thick pole inserted in
the hole in the center of the currency. Smaller coins only required
two men to carry, however the larger coins could measure up to four meters
in diameter, and required a whole team of strong men. What’s
even more fascinating is that the coins were made of aragonite, a
material that is not available on Yap, but had to be transported from
the island of Palau, approximately 400 km away. The transportation of the
material would have taken at least five days over the rough Pacific, and
often took the lives of men. The value of the coin depended (and still
does) on its diameter, but the number of sailors that were killed in its
transportation also have an effect on the value. The more casualties,
the more the coin was worth. There is certain logic in this. Of course
the vai was not a normal currency as we have come to think of it, but
more a symbol of prestige and wealth, with which one could purchase all
there was to purchase in such a society. Sometimes after the
transaction, the coin would stay in the very same place, but everyone
would know who it belonged to, and that was enough.
In the year 1929, 13 821 stone rounds of
varying sizes were counted on the island, however currently only about half of these remain. The
reason for this decrease in numbers, is their commercial, or more
precisely, their bank value. The vai are officially bought by the ‘Bank
of Hawaii’ and have an ordinary exchange rate that is
determined by their diameter. For one inch of diameter one can get 72
dollars. So a two-meter large vai is a fortune for islanders.
One of the largest stone coins, not yet sold.
here you may see the satelite view of Yap]