Stone money

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On the Pacific Island of Yap, you can't exactly keep change in your pocket when dealing in the local currency. It's stone ? and up to twelve feet across. Its origins go back millennia. The money is still used these days, but not to buy groceries. It's for the bigger things in life ? bestowing honor, asking forgiveness, or begging your daughter's new in-laws to treat her well. The World's Mary Kay Magistad reports from Yap.

MARCO WERMAN: I'm Marco Werman, this is The World. It's off to the South Pacific for today's geo quiz. We're looking for an island that's part of the federated states of Micronesia. There are some 600 islands in the group. The one we're looking for is a major one. It's east of the Philippines and southwest of Guam. The U.S. 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 bestowing honor, asking forgiveness or asking your daughter's new in-laws to treat her well. So where in the South Pacific is stone money used? Okay, you don't have to wait for this one. The answer is the island of Yap. That's where The World's Mary Kay Magistad came across this ancient currency.

MARY KAY MAGISTAD: 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 shimmering limestone. They carved discs of it with a hole in the middle to let people carry it on poles, says John Runman, an oral historian at the Yap State Historical Preservation Society.

JOHN RUNMAN: If you look at the raw material of stone money, it really looks like a full moon, the color of full moon and the people went to get their chief the moon but they didn't succeed so they get the next best.

MAGISTAD: He asked for the moon and they gave him stone money.

RUNMAN: Right.

MAGISTAD: But this isn't just any old money he says and not only because it takes twenty strong men to carry each of the heavier pieces.

RUNMAN: 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.

MAGISTAD: 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 calcite and limestone of various sizes, propped along a stone path leading to a village. I asked Falownug Kenned, also from Yap's Historical Society, if the big pieces of stone money are more valuable.

FALOWNUG KENNED: 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.

MAGISTAD: So the value of Yap's stone money is subjective and bigger isn't necessarily better. The most valuable pieces are the ones with heroic stories 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. Stone money is still used in Yap. To find out how, I went in search of a village elder near the stone money bank I had visited. I found 74 year old James Lukan sitting on his wooden porch, bare-chested, a skinny black cat purring in his lap.

JAMES LUKAN: Yeah, I have stone money. I had one given to me when I married my wife and my wife's family gave it to my father and they still have in my wife's village. Yeah, but I know ?

MAGISTAD: That it belongs to you?

LUKAN: Yeah.

MAGISTAD: So it's kind of a gentlemen's agreement. Rather than getting those 20 strong men to lift stone money and carry it from village to village, the owner of a piece of stone money will just tell someone they're giving it to them and why and what the story is behind that particular piece. I asked the village elder, James Lukan, what happens if future generations forget who owns what. He says actually that's already starting to happen.

LUKAN: Yeah, as a matter of fact, like those ones that you saw, we don't know who owns them. It's only a few people that knows it's theirs or their family.

MAGISTAD: It used to be that the story of each piece of stone money and the record of who owned it and why was told and retold in the airy A-frame, bamboo and thatch men's houses where men would gather at night to swap tales and teach new generations ancient traditions. But these days, the men's houses aren't used so much. The younger generation is instead watching TV, listening to hip hop and hanging out in bars like this one. I asked a young guy with an attitude and multiple piercings in his ears what he thinks of stone money, whether it matters to him that it be passed on to him. I wonder how close the tradition is coming to just dying out. Twenty two year old, Brad Gorong sets me straight. He says of course it matters.

BRAD GORONG: ?Cause it's valuable to us. The family that owns stone money, it's very helpful to them. They can use that to make peace.
MAGISTAD: Yap seems peaceful enough these days with its 12,000 people on a tiny set of islands, one foot in modernity and the other rooted in tradition. Perhaps the stone money and the stories and values behind it are part of what helps Yap keep its balance, however precarious, as it absorbs evermore trappings of the modern world. For The World, I'm Mary Kay Magistad, Yap.

WERMAN: You can see some of Mary Kay's photos from Yap and read her reporter's notebook at TheWorld.org.