Jeopardy! category: ISLANDS OF THE PACIFIC (19-02-2014)
$1600 clue: Anthropologists study the island of Yap for its use of 12-foot stone wheels not for transport but as this
The gist: In many parts of the world, it may be that possession is nine-tenths of the law. Not always so on the Micronesian* island of Yap. Since Yap’s traditional currency can weigh in at up to 8800 pounds, it can be pretty inconvenient to schlep your wallet to the site of a transaction. While most of the so-called “rai stones” are much smaller than the 12-foot coins mentioned in the clue, ownership of the stones is communally recorded and agreed upon through complex oral histories composed about each. Since one of the factors determining a stone’s worth is its size (along with others, such as its craftsmanship and how interesting the story of its creation and procurement is), the biggest can also be the most important, so knowing each stone’s ownership details is crucial to the functioning of the island’s ceremonial economy. I say ceremonial because rai stones are usually used in contexts like marriages, treaties, and the like, and rarely for more mundane arrangements (U.S. dollars are usually used for everyday activities). According to a traditional account, a large stone that sank during transportation continues to be used today, since it must still be sitting at the bottom of the sea today. An NPR story on the rai stones makes an apt comparison to how many of us in the Western world interact with our money today. When we pay our bills online, nothing physical except a few electrons has actually moved. But since we all agree that the shifting 1s and 0s inside our computers represent something with value, physicality isn’t important. I’d even add that our money has its own “oral history” too, what we sometimes call a paper trail – and if the paper trail is missing, the money might indeed be worthless.
The clue: It might be possible to arrive at a pretty good guess if you thought about this one for long enough, but in the context of a Jeopardy! game, it would probably take longer than you have. In essence, I think, this is just a straightforward question about a moderately obscure bit of anthropological trivia, not inappropriate for a high-value Double Jeopardy! clue.
In Jeopardy!: “Yap” appears in the J!Archive as a Micronesian island in four clues, and many more as the sound made by little dogs. Of the four, two mention the rai stones (though neither by that name), while the other two just mention the island or the language (Yapese) while looking for Micronesia as the correct response. Yap is certainly a very interesting place, but it isn’t critical Jeopardy! knowledge.
* Capital of the Federated States of Micronesia: Palikir (mnemonic: ‘Pauly cared’ enough to federate the Micronesian States).