The Island of Yap & Blockchain

May 4, 2023

Blockchain and Bitcoin may seem a very puzzling and complicated technology concept, but the secret origin of this cutting-edge technology stretches back over 2000 years ago, to a remote part of the South Pacific, the Micronesian island of Yap.

The Island of Yap

The Island of Yap is located in the Federated States of Micronesia, in the Pacific Ocean. It’s surrounded by coral reefs that are home to manta rays and sharks. Around the island, thousands of 500 pound, 12 feet high limestone and aragonite disks are randomly placed.

Two thousand years ago, the island natives, or Yapese, needed to create a system of commerce. Unfortunately, Gold or Silver did not exist on the island which forced the Yapese to find some other material that would serve as currency.

To solve this problem, the strongest people of Yap sailed 250 miles away to the closest island to bring back thousands of large granite boulders that they carved into disks, the disks were labeled as “RAI”. RAI disks were large and heavy and spending them like modern money would have been impossible. Instead they were placed in public locations all around the island and never moved.

The First Distributed Ledger

The Yapese were using what today we call a distributed ledger system; instead of just assigning the responsibility of recording their transactions to one person or a small group of people, they decided to create a trustless system where everyone had to remember who owned each RAI. With time it became more complex, which made the people of Yap use books, known as ledgers, to write down who owned each RAI. When the Yapese wanted to trade or spend their RAIs, they would make an announcement to the entire community that the ownership of the RAI has changed, and everyone would update their ledgers. In this way, the Yapese could spend their RAIs without ever having to move them.

This method allowed the Yapese to perform transactions without having to trusting one another, and prevented anyone from claiming ownership of a RAI that did not belong to them. If one person claimed another’s RAI, the community would come together and compare ledgers, then take a vote. Each holder of a ledger counts as one vote and the majority of ledgers alike would be the one applicable.

The Yapese spread ledgers across the island, and kept them up to date; this system was more secure than a centralized ledger system.

The Blockchain

Blockchain is a record keeping system; it’s a digital ledger that safeguards transactions and data being duplicated and distributed across the entire network of computer systems connected to the blockchain. A Blockchain is created with blocks chained together through a cryptographic hash function. A block is similar to a piece of paper with multiple number of lines. Records, transactions, information, etc.. are recorded on that paper, and every time a new transaction occurs on the blockchain, a record of that transaction is added to every connected ledger. The decentralised database managed by multiple participants is known as Distributed Ledger Technology (DLT).

Every few seconds, transactions are conducted by some computers connected, and all other computers on the blockchain are then notified that a transaction have occurred. If theres any disagreements regarding a transaction’s or a ledger’s authenticity, a vote is taken and majority wins.

The system mechanism allows people all over the world to transact securely without having a middleman or a third party interfere, similar to what the Yapese thousands of years ago did.

Yap & The Blockchain

Exposing similarities to what we have today, we come to realize that their distributed ledger system, is actually a Blockchain. Updating their ledger is similar to adding a block. Their community are the validators or what we call miners. Lastly, their RAI, is a cryptocurrency.

According to the researchers, this ledger — told through stories shared by the Yapese and passed down over generations — helped the community to record and communicate changes in ownership of the RAI, for things like gifts and rewards, political enticements, or even paying ransoms and debts.

Bitcoin nowadays is obviously used for different purposes, but the most intact thing about the RAI and the Bitcoin is the ledger system they govern which in principle function similarly.

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