The “Unique Bitcoin” Was This Large Stone Cash on a Tiny Pacific Island

Bitcoin and the blockchain might seem to be puzzling new technological ideas, however the central tenet of this cutting-edge cryptocurrency goes again manner longer than you would possibly imagine.


Unusual as it could appear, bitcoin has a form of bizarro historic analogue in an historic forex system courting again tons of of years: large stone disks referred to as rai, which have been used way back as a symbolic type of cash on the Micronesian island of Yap.

“They’re one of many world’s most intriguing cash,” says archaeologist Scott Fitzpatrick the College of Oregon.

“Carved from limestone quarries positioned within the Palau islands some 250 miles (400 km) from Yap, they’re the biggest objects ever moved over the open Pacific Ocean in the course of the pre-European contact period.”

017 bitcoin rai yap 2Archaeologist Scott Fitzpatrick beside a rai stone. (Scott Fitzpatrick)

At a look, these large, heavy stone monuments (which are sometimes taller than the individuals who personal them) may not seem to be they’ve lots in frequent with a digital system of worth that’s encrypted, intangible, and principally invisible to human senses.

However that bodily distinction masks the beautiful shared function of bitcoin and rai – each types of forex rely upon a public, group ledger system, that gives transparency about transactions, in addition to safety, and all while not having a centralised financial institution construction.


In bitcoin and different cryptocurrencies, that public ledger is named the blockchain: an open file of bitcoin possession and transactions unfold throughout a number of computer systems on the web.

In rai – and the traditional tradition of the Yapese islanders who used the enormous stone cash – there was an equally reliable antecedent to the blockchain ledger.

017 bitcoin rai yap 2Submerged rai stones off the coast of Yap. (Picture by Brad Holland, from Fitzpatrick & McKeon, Financial Anthropology, 2019)

“Rai have been thought of extraordinarily invaluable, however given their measurement, weight, and relative fragility, they weren’t sometimes moved after being positioned in a particular location,” Fitzpatrick and co-author Stephen McKeon clarify in a brand new research exploring the similarities.

“In consequence, if a rai have been gifted or exchanged, the brand new proprietor(s) of a disk might not have lived in shut proximity to it. To make sure that possession was recognized and indeniable, an oral ledger was used inside communities to take care of transparency and safety.”

In response to the researchers, this oral ledger – advised by tales shared by the Yapese and handed down over generations – helped the group to file and talk adjustments in possession of the rai, for issues like wedding ceremony items, political enticements, and even paying ransoms.

The issues individuals would possibly use bitcoin for right this moment are clearly completely different, however essentially the most placing factor concerning the two types of forex is how the ledger system, in precept, performs the identical perform.

“As with the rai stones, details about bitcoins’ worth and possession is managed collectively,” says McKeon.

“It is a distributed monetary system versus the extra acquainted, centralised methods involving third-party monetary establishments.”

The findings are reported in Financial Anthropology.


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