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They say you can wander the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., for all of your days and never see every exhibit.
On Saturday, I took my girls to the Natural History Museum to see the dinosaur fossils and the insect zoo. Much to my surprise, I found in the basement on the way to the cafeteria a large example of the fabled stone money of Yap.
Yap, as you well know, is a coral island in Micronesia.
According to their Tourist Bureau: “Yap is so remote it takes a two day journey by plane, but the moment you step off the airplane a topless woman will great (sic) you with a fresh flower lei.”
You can’t beat that.
But it’s not the topless women that make Yap interesting. It’s their money.
What Is Money?
There’s no gold or silver on Yap, and all the basics of living — food, clothing, and shelter — are readily available and free for the taking.
This situation leads to an interesting tale…
Centuries ago, explorers found limestone deposits on another island 250 miles away. They carved this limestone into huge stone discs, which they brought back across the sea with canoes towing bamboo rafts.
Those explorers must have been great salesmen, because they convinced the others that these stones were items of wealth.
The people of Yap, being people, took the rare (to them) limestone blocks not just as money, but as a storehouse of wealth.
The small pieces they traded for everyday things like pigs and fish.
But the larger pieces would be used for a large purchase, such as a dowry. Or perhaps if someone found themselves down on their luck, and had a bad crop, they might trade.
One man was towing back an extremely large stone when he was hit by a storm. In order to save himself, he cut the raft free and the stone sank.
This stone — which no one alive has ever seen — still has tremendous value.
It has been traded many times, and is now owned by the richest family of Yap.
When the Germans took over the island around 1900, they wanted to build roads.
But the islanders wouldn’t work, and nothing could convince them to leave their idyllic life for the backbreaking work of crushing coral.
The Germans finally put a tax in the form of a black cross on the stones. They claimed ownership as a fine against the roads being built.
This did the trick, and the roads were built. Acknowledging the debt paid, the Germans gave back the money by removing the black crosses.
Most times, the stones remain in the family and don’t change hands at all.
Imagine there’s this great big stone disc leaning against a tree…
One person gives it to another person. But the stone doesn’t move; it’s just that everyone in the village knows the stone now has a new owner.
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Federal Reserve Bank of New York
As we all know from that Bruce Willis movie, the largest gold stash in the world is stored under the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.
There are 550,000 bars of gold buried deep in the bedrock of Manhattan.
But the vast majority of this gold doesn’t belong to the United States. It belongs to the various countries of the world.
When France, say, owes China a billion dollars, a guard puts some bars on a dolly, an accountant makes a note, and the gold goes from the French closet to the Chinese one and is earmarked, or stamped, for the new owner.
No one from China or France ever sees the gold. The gold does not move from the depths of the earth.
And yet the fortunes of millions of people change in some way by this single action.
When you pay your phone bill online, nothing really moves except for some zeros and ones in a server somewhere. But everyone agrees that the transfer of wealth has taken place.
Today, the stone money of Yap still has value — and the wealth of the village is determined by it.
The rest of the world has vested gold with the sacred property of value.
Gold is the king of metals. It has been since before Hatshepsut of Egypt built two hundred-foot columns capped with gold that could be seen for miles.
If I was a betting man — and I am — I’d say that gold has been and always will be the last storehouse of value for mankind.
P.S. On Monday, I proposed to you that gold was freedom. Today I offered up gold as a storehouse of wealth. On Friday, I will give to you the most valuable gold secret of all… Stay tuned.