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Rai Stones (wikipedia.org)
95 points by Thevet on March 21, 2020 | hide | past | favorite | 35 comments

> The monetary system of Yap relies on an oral history of ownership. In the case of stones that are too large to move, buying an item with one simply involves agreeing that the ownership has changed. As long as the transaction is recorded in the oral history, it will now be owned by the person to whom it is passed

> The extrinsic (perceived) value of a specific stone is based on not only its size and craftsmanship, but also its history. If many people—or no one at all—died when the specific stone was transported, or a famous sailor brought it in, the value of the rai stone increases by reason of its anecdotal heft.

So, it's Bitcoin.

Its a ledger but that's about it. Its not distributed, decentralized or permissionless.

The "oral history" part makes me think the "ledger" exists in the collective memory of a community. Plus, the value is purely defined on how hard the artifact was to get, not on any kind of intrinsic utility.

So not a million miles away from Gold then

Gold has some intrinsic utility. Even before electronics, it was useful as a visible display of wealth and power, which did have very tangible value.

And the whole malleability thing


Keep this in mind when people claim that money is a modern invention, that it dates from the Copper Age or later, or that it's dependent on the existence of states.

....it's really a stretch to call these stones "money."

Yes, they represent value, but other than that they practically immobile, non-portable, non-fungible, and work entirely via word of mouth and rely on human honesty...perhaps it's more appropriate to call it proto-money.

It's proto-banking, eh? They skipped the earlier phases of finance.

It reminds me of the aliens in Douglas Adams' who, having fifty arms, are the only species to invent under-arm deodorant before the wheel.

Reminds me more of https://hitchhikers.fandom.com/wiki/Triganic_Pu

Also barter was never really a thing: However, ethnographic studies have shown that no present or past society has used barter without any other medium of exchange or measurement, nor have anthropologists found evidence that money emerged from barter, instead finding that gift-giving (credit extended on a personal basis with an inter-personal balance maintained over the long term) was the most usual means of exchange of goods and services


Probably hard currencies started out as debt and title systems like the rai stones.

If you look at a pidgin English dialect like Nigerian pidgin, and compare it to British English or for that matter Nigerian non-pidgin English, you might assume that pidgin English was the original form, since it's simpler, and that British English evolved from it. But in fact the truth is the opposite: pidgin English is a simplified version of English developed as a lingua franca for international communication.

The same seems to be true of hard currency and especially barter. Hard currency is pidgin banking; barter is pidgin hard currency. Rai stones show us the complexity of social arrangements surrounding money that in a homogeneous culture within a generation or two, but which are only legible to someone who grew up in the culture to which that money belongs. In Yap this heritage has been preserved, although diminished in importance; elsewhere it has been mostly lost.

Hard currency is sufficiently simple to bridge cultural gaps and even gaps between ages, like pidgin English or Glosa.


That book is on my list to read.

One of the most interesting things I've heard about money is what Giordano Bruno (1548 – 1600) supposedly said: "Whatever has the greatest value and the least cost of storage becomes money."

it's a good book, but the earlier chapters regarding tribal economics and the valued currency being tribal women themselves is questionable from a truth standpoint.

Tribes traded people for goods and services, sometimes temporarily. It was mostly a sex and politics thing, but the book views it as a form of currency bartering and trade; I think there is more nuance there.

Honestly, with all that oral history thing, it sounds like a proto-blockchain. The "true chain" in any given situation is determined by the set of oral histories that everyone can agree on.

It's also sort of the same as how stock ownership works, where ultimate ownership of stocks doesn't change, but authority over them does:


"in the case of stones that are too large to move", yes. Other stones are smaller, mentioned at sizes of 3.5 or 2.8-3.1cm each, an easy size to carry. Not knowing much about the area they were used in, I'd say the quantity (6000 or so according to the article) is more limiting.

Note that they have smaller versions of them too, which works like regular coins.

It's not totally clear from the article, but it would seem that the small coins are worth much less than the large ones since there is little hardship involved in their excavation and transportation. So the small ones function more like coins, and the large ones are more like valuable property which can be exchanged via an oral deed.

This is the definition of land contract, so maybe that’s a better analogy.

Nano (the cryptocurrency) was originally named Raiblocks after these.

And I can see why "In one instance, a large rai being transported by canoe and outrigger was accidentally dropped and sank to the sea floor. Although it was never seen again, everyone agreed that the rai must still be there, so it continued to be transacted as genuine currency".

Interestingly this is the reason why the first Raiblocks wallet was named canoe. [1]

[1] https://getcanoe.io/

This sounds like the beginning of a Borges story.

I find these stones fascinating. You might be interested in this NPR article: https://www.npr.org/sections/money/2011/02/15/131934618/the-...

It's a good read with a little more color than the Wikipedia piece.

Humans are wonderfully crazy at times. This really tickled me.

Excerpt (one of the details that delighted me):

The extrinsic (perceived) value of a specific stone is based on not only its size and craftsmanship, but also its history. If many people—or no one at all—died when the specific stone was transported, or a famous sailor brought it in, the value of the rai stone increases by reason of its anecdotal heft.

Well, there's the stock market.

Not the kind of reply I expected and utterly fails to be a setup for the joke I wanted to make about not being human myself and just being here on your planet to do the field study portion of my degree in Human Studies.

This seems more human-like, in the traditional pre-modern sense, than the extremely abstract idea that is modern finance.

Don't forget the citation needed.

I believe the Disappointment Islands have one of these [1], in a community of ~40 inhabitants.

[1] http://www.bbc.com/travel/story/20190319-a-journey-to-the-di...

Money Mischief: Episodes in Monetary History by Milton Friedman is a great read about this and similar topics.


"Economist Milton Friedman has compared the monetary role of the stone money to the reserves of gold held in Fort Knox for foreign governments"

Very few people actually understand money (what it is, how it works), and the Yap stones are a perfect reminder of that fact.

And unfortunately, the few that do use that knowledge in a profoundly irresponsible way (e.g. QE)

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