Archaeologists believe they have found evidence of ancient cryptocurrencies and blockchain technology. At the annual meeting of the Society for American Archaeology in Washington, D.C., archaeologists discussed how ancient stone money transactions on the island of Yap, in the western Pacific Ocean, may have been the precursor to Bitcoin and blockchain technologies. Researchers drew astonishing parallels between the carved limestone disks of the Yap people and modern cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin. But how did this ancient stone money system work like cryptocurrency?
Yap islanders pioneered a public oral system for securely tracking and exchanging their currency, the giant limestone coins, called rai. Archaeologists point out that a similar process happens with blockchain through the storing of digital histories. There are many other similarities, though, including the mining, storage, peer-to-peer negotiation, and auditability of both currencies. Once again, history has shown that the ancients were wiser than people often realize.
What are these ancient coins, and how were they used?
How long the Yap people have used stone currency remains a mystery, but flat rocks have been found at the site dating back over 2000 years. What archaeologists do know, is that centuries ago, Yapese stone carvers started traveling to the Palauan archipelago to carve limestone into circular rai currency. The stone disks had a hole cut into the center, so men could skewer them with wooden poles for transport on their rafts. Back at the island, the miners would present the huge coins to the villagers at a public gathering where they would describe each coin’s manufacturing history and attributes of the stones to the community so that everyone knew a rai’s worth. After public inspection, a coin was assigned a value based on its attributes like size, shape, quality, and even the risks taken on the journey to acquire it. Once the rai’s worth was determined, the village chief would display the coin at communal spots. Researchers argue that similarly, Bitcoin miners solve complex mathematical problems in order to release units of the cryptocurrency to the community. Then, blockchain technology verifies the transaction, making it visible to the network.
The similarities do not end there. Through the display of rai in public places in the village, the Yap people could see and agree on the value of the currency, like how Bitcoin participants can check the value of their currency through a viewable digital ledger. Further, for the Yap people to have mined for limestone, they had to work out agreements with nearby islanders. Likewise, miners of Bitcoin receive a digital request to mine for coins. After a rai coin was verified and publicly displayed, it could be exchanged for goods and services, just like Bitcoins. Also, like Bitcoin, the transaction history for each rai was publicly visible to yap blockchain members.
New research is emerging every day to suggest that ancient stone money, like the rai, is only one of many examples of how ancient civilizations created a socially networked economic system based on community and transparency. Clearly, we still have a lot to learn from our ancient history. Exciting new technologies like cryptocurrencies and blockchains are yet another example of how ancient wisdom may hold the key to humanity’s future. As Machiavelli said, "Whoever wishes to foresee the future must consult the past; for human events ever resemble those of preceding times."