A heavy price
I research some of the world’s most intriguing coins. For centuries, the dominant currency on the island of Yap came in the form of large disks of limestone called rai. The Yapese exchanged them for key social transactions, like marriages and ransoms. But while stone money reigned on Yap, it mainly came from quarries on islands five to eight days away by boat in Palau. So that’s where I went to study its origins.
Extracting all that limestone was dangerous, and even going there to study the quarries is pretty tough. Palau’s jagged topography will cut you to ribbons if you fall. And there are toxic vines a thousand times worse than poison ivy. One summer, there were so many chiggers that we stripped down to our underwear to work—the bugs go for sweaty spots. But that hostile terrain, combined with the arduous boat journey home, is what gave each stone its status. One prized piece is called the “stone without tears” because nobody died carving or transporting it. Giant rocks aren’t any stranger than gemstones as currency. If a queen owned a ruby, its value would go up. Rai is similar in that its story adds to its worth. That stone without tears is especially valuable, because its lack of body count makes it such a rarity.
These days the Yapese use U.S. dollars for daily transactions. But they still break out their rai for special occasions.