A heavy price

Popular Science - - TALES FROM THE FIELD - SCOTT FITZ­PATRICK, PRO­FES­SOR OF ARCHEOLOGY AT THE UNIVER­SITY OF ORE­GON

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.

by Au­thor Name / Il­lus­tra­tion by Per­son Name

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