Rai Stones

WC Art Encyclopedia Rai Stone

When Mozzy put up this stony monstrosity with a hole in the middle in Peter’s and El’s garden, he presented them with valid money. Honestly.

Rai, also called stone money, is a currency used only by men on Ulithi, an island in Yap, which is a part of Micronesia. Though the production has been stopped in 1931 the stone discs kept their value and are still utilized in highly important social transactions such as marriages, inheritance, political deals, signs of alliances, ransom of the battle death or rarely in exchange for food.

Most of the stones are placed along pathways or in front of meeting houses. The physical location of the stones doesn’t matter in the matter of ownership. The stones are too heavy and precious to be moved around. What is important is that the ownership of the stone and the list of previous owners are known to everyone. And it is important that they stand on their rim – that’s tradition.

The discs vary in size. The smallest are only the size of a palm while the largest measure about 3.6m/12ft in diameter and weight about 4t/8,800lb. They are made from limestone formed from aragonite and calcite – a kind of stone not native to the island of Ulithi. The discs were mined on the island of Palau and transported to Ulithi on canoes and rafts. The people of Palau received in exchange beads, coconut meat and copra or services. There exists evidence that the limestone was quarried by the Yapese on Palau as early as 500 AD, but more widespread mining started in the time period between 1000 and 1400 AD.

The value of the stone discs is based almost solely on extrinsic facts like size, natural beauty, shape, age, history of the stone, how difficult it was to obtain the stone, if someone or not a single person died in the transport, and how important the people were who had a hand in the stone’s story. The value isn’t lost even if the stone itself becomes unobtainable. E.g. one stone sank to the ocean floor during transport when the canoe carrying it capsized and sank. Since all people involved agree that the stone still exists, wherever it is now located, it maintained its effectiveness as a unit of inherent value. It is the same belief that makes virtual transactions with paperless money possible for us today.

Money stones and beads may have been used in Yap for up to 2000 years though they didn’t resemble in the beginning what is known as Rai today. The size of the stones dramatically increased with the influx of European traders and techniques. And around the year 1875, the year David Dean O’Keefe founded his copra and trepan business, a Rai inflation began. After shipwrecking on the island and being helped by the native, he provided iron tools and flooded the market with far less valuable stone discs. The goods he received in exchange he sold in the Far East and made so a fortune. His story was turned into a movie in 1954 with Burt Lancaster acting as Captain O’Keefe.

Last but not least, if you ever find yourself in Yap don’t ever get the idea to sit on the stone discs or use them in any other way (e.g. table). It is not just forbidden by law and you’ll be fined (the fine is due in real money and not stones), it is also a grave insult to the native people.

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