Science reveals the strange similarities, found by archaeologist Scott Fitzpatrick of the University of Oregon, between the very modern cryptocurrency markets and the very ancient enormous stone “coins” used on the Micronesian island of Yap:
“Stone money transactions on Yap were the precursor to Bitcoin and blockchain technologies,” Fitzpatrick says. At April’s annual meeting of the Society for American Archaeology in Washington, D.C., he explained the connection between the carved stone disks, some weighing more than a Honda Accord and standing taller than a man, and today’s cyber-tokens floating in digital space.
Based on studies of rock sources and dating of sites on Yap and nearby islands, Fitzpatrick thinks that, before European contact in 1783, inhabitants of Yap sailed about 400 kilometers to other islands in Micronesia to quarry limestone from caves and rock-shelters. Sea voyagers negotiated with local leaders for access to limestone deposits.
Stone carvers went along for the ride and formed stone disks on site. A central hole was cut into each circular chunk of rock so men could run a wooden pole through the opening to hoist the rock. These weighty pieces of currency, called rai, were transported to Yap on rafts.
Arriving back home, travelers presented newly acquired rai to their fellow community members at a public gathering. Everyone heard which individuals or clan groups took ownership of particular disks. Each rai was assigned a value based on size, evenness of shape, stone quality and risks taken on the journey.
Ownership of a disk could be transferred, for instance, as a wedding gift, to secure political allies or in exchange for food from residents of nearby islands after a severe storm. These deals also occurred in front of the whole community. No matter who acquired a rai, it stayed in its original location.
Bitcoin and blockchain work in much the same way, Fitzpatrick says. Bitcoin “miners” solve complex mathematical puzzles to release units of currency. Those units are transported and securely stored across the public blockchain ledger. Full transaction histories for each bitcoin are available to all network participants. Bitcoins can be exchanged for goods or services or given away at any time by participants in the digital system.
A comparison of stone money on Yap to blockchain technology “is legitimate,” says anthropological archaeologist Kathryn Sampeck of Illinois State University in Normal. Yap islanders pioneered a public, oral system for securely tracking and exchanging rai. Blockchain does the same by maintaining digital histories and updates about units of cryptocurrency.
There’s more – and a nice table of comparisons – at the link.