YAPESE VALUABLES (MACHAF NI WAAB)
Exchange is an important part of Life in Yap as it is in all cultures. Good old-fashioned bartering and sharing have traditionally been the mode of much exchange, but there are also mang things for which the Yapese have used intriguing symbolic money that often mystify outsiders: objects like Stone and Shell Money, Lavalavas, and Turmeric powder.
Their names were Fatha’an of Rull and Angumang of Tomil, and Yapese legends say they were the first ancient navigators to make the dangerous passage to Palau and return with the giant discs. According to legend, they initially ordered their crews of workmen to cut a piece of glistening Palauan limestone in the shape of a fish. Not satisfied with the design, they recut the stone in the shape of a crescent moon. Finally, they settled on a stone design shaped like a full moon, had a hole cut in the center for carrying, and prepared to carry several of the stones back to Yap.
Both men began loading up their canoes. Fatha’an finished first and Angumang suggested that he head immediately for Yap. Fatha’an agreed, but, knowing Angumang’s reputation as a trickster, suspected a trap and had his crew hide their vessel in an alcove in Palau called Remith for a few days before embarking on the return voyage. Sure enough, after a few days Angumang, a skilled magician, conjured up a typhoon, hoping that it would catch Fatha’an and his crew at sea on their return voyage.
After the storm passed, Angumang and his crew took their stone money and headed back to Yap. They were greeted warmly on their return and there was
much celebration – tempered only by the sadness the people felt over the apparent demise of Fatha’an and his crew in a terrible typhoon. The sadness was short-lived, though, for a few days laxer Fatha’an and his crew arrived in Yap, very much alive, and more than a little angry about Angurnang’s intended treachery.
And so begun centuries of intrigue and competition filled voyages in pursuit of Yapese gold – stone money.
No one knows for sure when Fatha’an and Angumang returned from Palau with the first pieces of stone money. The first stone money, or “raay” as it is called in Yapese, may have been used as ornaments or jewelry. Scientists have used carbon dating techniques on some very small pieces and suggest that the quarrying may have begun as far back as 125 A.D. The sparkling rock from which “raay” was quarried is unlike any stone commonly available on Yap. According to geologists, the hard as rnarble rock is a form of crystalline calcite that is found primarily in the colorful glistening walls of limestone caverns.
Hundreds of voyages followed the initial trip. Many men atternpted the hazardous passage and more that a few perished in the process. The 250 mile canoe journey took about five days one way if the weather was good and required skillful sailing. The voyage navigaror was expected to use all of his powerful high seas magic to guide the crew safely to the waters of Palau, commanding the wind, breaking the waves, warding off sharks and storms, and ‘calling the islands of Palau.’
Despire the difficulty of the voyage, getting there may have been the easiest part. Making the “arger pieces of stone money that are now a familiar fixture in most Yapese villages was an arduous task that could take many years. First, the Yapese had to obtain perrnission from the Palauan chiefs to begin quarrying. Often they had to present gifts of glass beads (a form of Palauan money), turmeric, betel nut and pepper leaves, as well as agree to serve as temporary laborers. (The Yapese, who were farnous for their construction skill, built many stone paths and dams for the Palauans.)
After obtaining permission to work in the quarries, the workers had to build huge bamboo and wood scaffolds to get to the caverns and to support them as they cut along steep sheer surfaces. Then they had to heat the rocks in order to cut the stone with clam Shell adzes and reef stone drills. After making the center hole in the stone, workers used pumice shells to carefully polish the surface of the stone.
Some of the most valued types of stone, like aragonite, were extremely difficult to work with and required intense concentration and slow, methodical craftsmanship. The stone money was taken from the quarries by raft though the narrow channels of Palau to the open sea. Large pieces of stone money were often tied to rafts behind Yapese sailing canoes, while smaller pieces were loaded directly into the canoes. Sometimes misfortune struck and a piece of stone money that was not securely fastened to its raft feil to the bottom of the sea.
The value of a particular piece of stone money was based an a number of factors: type of rock, size, shape, history, kind of transportation and kinds of tools used in quarrying. These factors all indicated how difficult it was to secure the stone. For instance, a small stone that had been obtained at the tost of several lives and was named after those who died trying to secure it might be considered more valuable to the Yapese than a much larger or prettier stone that was not obtained at such great personal costs.
When stone money was brought back to Yap it was usually stored outside of the village Men’s House. There, die chief who had commissioned the trip would make deci-sions about ownership of the money that had been brought back. Some pieces were given to individuals while other pieces might be designated as village money to be used for special purchases. A few pieces of money were given special names (“raay ni ngachor) and these were considered the most valuable. Stone money could be used to purchase food for feasts, canoes and land, as well as exchanged as gifts with other villages or as payment for assistance in war.
The nature of the stone money trade changed dramatically in the 1870s when the American trader David Dean O’Keefe, whose life the Yapese people had once saved, returned to Yap in a huge Chinese Junk and offered to assist die Yapese quarrt’ stone money in exchange for copra. During this period the largest pieces of stone money were quarried, using iron tools, and transported in large ships. These pieces are commonly referred to now as ‘O’Keefe’s Money’ and are not as highly valued as the money brought to Yap by traditional canoes.
Palau was the primary source for stone money, but a few of the later pieces came from Guam, and one report describes an ancient quarry site in Formosa. Old stories also tell of five pieces quarried on Yap itself about two hundred years ago. Since there was no calcite on the islands, the workers chose a quartz deposit in Talengith, Maap. One of the pieces reportedly still exists, but since it came from Yap and was quarried without any risk or great effort it is not highly prized. The last piece of money was quarried in Angaur, Palau, in 1931, by an exiled Tomil resident. The piece was brought back to Yap in 1932 and given to Rull municipality as payment for permission for die exile to return to Yap.
According to a Japanese survey, 1929 there were over 13,000 pieces of stone money on the island. But only 35 years later that number had dropped by half to 6,600 as a result of World War II and the destruction of many pieces during the Japanese era for road and airport construction projects. More pieces of stone money also disappeared during the time of the American Naval Administration, most likely taken as souvenirs by thoughtless sailors.
Stone Money is still valuable today and not just for traditional exchanges. While you probably couldn’t walk up to the ticket counter of Continental Airlines with a piece of stone money and buy a ticket to Hawaii, Tokyo, or Cairns, you could probably find someone in Yap who would take your stone money as collateral for a cash loan in the amount of your ticket.
Visitors interested in seeing Yapese money can visit the stone money Banks in Rull, Gagil, or the Bechiyal Cultural Center in Maap. The largest remaining piece of stone money is over twelve feet tall and is located in Rumung municipality, but is unavailable for public viewing. Stone Money is protected by Yap State law, and exportation is very difficult, requiring the special permission of the Legislature and die council of traditional chiefs.