We're looking for an island that's part of 1)the Federated States of Micronesia. The US dollar is used on the island, but this place is famous for its stone money. We're talking discs carved from solid stone. They're big—up to 12 feet in diameter, in fact—and heavy, and you wouldn't use these stones to buy groceries or souvenirs. Rather, they're used for the bigger things in life, like 2)bestowing honor, asking forgiveness or asking your daughter's new in-laws to treat her well.
A long time ago in Yap, the legend goes, people were always arguing about trading and doing business, and what to accept as a method of payment. A chief had an idea while looking at the full moon. He said, “We should have something large, round and beautiful like the moon for trading, always there like the moon, something that doesn't break or wear out or get stolen.”
So, the villagers of Yap set out in their canoes to find that something. Some traveled almost 300 miles, to the island of Palau, where they found 3)shimmering limestone. They carved disks of it, with a hole in the middle to let people carry it on poles.
But this isn't just any old money, and not only because it takes 20 strong men to carry each of the heavier pieces.
John Runman (Yap's Historical Society): Stone money is not used to ask for a wife, for instance. Stone money we can give to somebody to build a house. I can give to another family to ask forgiveness, or apology for a wrongdoing a member of my family has caused onto the other family.
One of John Runman's colleagues offers to take me to a stone money bank.
It's in the middle of a forest. There are no bank windows, no tellers—not even a building—just discs of 4)calcite and limestone, of various sizes, propped along a stone path, leading to a village. I ask if the big pieces of stone money are more valuable.
Falownug Kenned (Yap's Historical Society): It depends on the story, and how they get it here to the island. If it cost somebody's life to get it here, it is more valuable than these big ones.
So the value of the Yap stone money is subjective and bigger isn't necessarily better. The most valuable pieces are the ones with heroic story attached. Sometimes the pieces are even named after someone—someone who died, trying to bring it to the island, or someone who did some heroic deed that is retold every time the stone money changes hands. In a culture of just a few thousand people, without a written language, the stories behind the stone money are part of Yap's living history.