Stone Money in Yap

On Location: Yap Island

Susan Langley|August 31, 2010|Blog Post

We didn’t have to wait long for one of the highlights of this expedition, a visit to Yap. Famous for the social complexities of Yapese life and the valuable stone money used to indicate one’s high status within the community, Yap has been a popular destination for many adventurers and anthropologists.

After a day at sea from our embarkation aboard the Clipper Odyssey, our group was eager to encounter Yapese village life. Even the divers onboard put up a protest when their only opportunity to visit the island conflicted with their first, compulsory dive. With such dissent Little John and Julie (our Expedition Leader and Cruise Director respectively) went back to the drawing board to ensure the divers too where able to visit the island. Apart from a small group of birders, everyone on board was able to get a first hand look at a part of Yapese culture.

Having taught students about this culture over many years, I was delighted to have the opportunity to experience a first-hand encounter. The villagers were delightful and made every effort to show us aspects of their culture. We were greeted at the entrance of the village with women dressed in their multicoloured grass skirts, tumeric rubbed all over their arms, shoulders, and breasts. Men and young boys were likewise dressed in their finest dancing clothes: lava lava bands tied tight around their loins as well as skirts of pale yellow coconut leaves. Their bodies were a yellow hue, also rubbed with tumeric.

We were taken to the community house set on a coral stone platform, the building displaying a tall gable and painted façade. Both young and more mature, male and female dancers wielded bamboo sticks, clapping them together while a woman chanted the verse. The dance was created to represent the time when the Japanese had invaded their island, pushing the Yapese out of their villages and away from their sources of food, their gardens and the sea. They had to live in caves during this period, many dying of starvation.

When the dancing was completed we wandered around the village watching demonstrations of weaving, young boys climbing betel-nut and coconut trees. We were encouraged to try the betel-nut, some chewing the mild stimulant for the first time. It brought back memories of my fieldwork in Papua New Guinea. Wonderful handicrafts were also available. Perhaps the most intriguing and by far the most popular, were the large, hafted clam shells used on the island to indicate a marriage has been made. These are extremely valuable, the village women likening the clam-shells as akin to our wedding rings. What a wonderful way to start our exploration of Micronesian cultures.

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