A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
For the Yapese of Micronesia,
a disk of sculpted limestone could buy just about anything.
The salt spray splashed across the bow and clung to my face as our boat slid across the smooth surface of the sea. My companions from the Palau Bureau of Arts and Culture cut the engine and the boat drifted slowly through the shallow turquoise water toward a stone dock at the base of a steep hillside. We were visiting one of the hundreds of "Rock Islands," as the locals call them, scattered over 18 miles of water in the western Pacific Ocean, making up the majority of the archipelago known as the Republic of Palau. The islands are located roughly midway between New Guinea to the south and the Philippines to the west.
We secured the boat and began climbing a path of broken coral bits and limestone gravel leading to the island's interior. The clamor of buzzing insects and screeching birds filled the air as we made our way through the steamy jungle. It was 1997, and I had come to see the famous stone "money" disks carved by people from the Micronesian island of Yap 300 miles away. Braving unpredictable seas, the Yapese quarried limestone from the caves and rock shelters scattered among these islands. I was not disappointed; soon a Palauan colleague cried, "Balang ra Beluulechab!" (Yapese money!) as we reached a broken circular limestone disk with a neat hole drilled through the center that lay precariously across a large fissure in the rock. At ten feet in diameter, more than one and a half feet thick at the center, and weighing eight tons, it was indeed the stone money, or rai, of the Yapese--one of the largest objects ever carved to be moved across open ocean by native Pacific Islanders. This rai had probably broken during an attempt to move it to the shore, rendering it worthless, so the Yapese had left it behind.
I didn't know it at the time, but the stone money of Yap--used for a variety of social "transactions," from marriage gifts to political payoffs--would occupy my thoughts and research for the next six years. I traveled across the Pacific, often twice a year, to excavate the caves and valleys of Palau for clues to how the Yapese carved and moved these massive megaliths back to Yap over a period of perhaps 500 years.
Scott M. Fitzpatrick is assistant professor of anthropology at North Carolina State University. He is editor of the forthcoming book Voyages of Discovery: The Archaeology of Islands (Praeger, 2004).