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If you were like me in childhood, and shared the habit of practically memorizing the contents of each year’s Guiness Book of World Records, you will probably recall that the prize for the world’s “largest money” has long been in the hands of the Yap Islanders of Micronesia. These are the iconic round stones with a hollow center, known in Yapese as rai, which have been quarried and sculpted by the islanders for at least the past several centuries, and perhaps for millennia.
I’ve known about these rai stones forever, but what I only learned recently is that on at least one occasion a stone was being transported in an outrigger canoe from one island to another, when the vessel hit a sudden storm and the giant coin was lost to the ocean’s secret bottom. By some sharp and impromptu casuistry, the boatsmen found a practical solution to this sudden shortfall in specie, which seems to have satisfied both those who lost it, and those to whom they had intended to pay it. The men reasoned that while there is no conceivable way to retrieve the stone from the ocean, or even to see it again, one may nonetheless be certain that it is still down there, and that it retains whatever value it had before it sank. Therefore, it can continue to be traded indefinitely between willing parties, just like any other rai stone. It doesn’t really matter if the stone is still in our direct possession or not. In fact, some may have realized, keeping it at the bottom of the ocean is much preferable: it is after all very heavy, and transporting it from buyer to seller for each new exchange is a terrible ordeal.
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