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Samoan Origins

July 18, 2011

Photo of Lapita pottery

Based on archaeological evidence, the first people in Samoa arrived about 3000 years ago. Archaeology is the study of the human past using evidence left by people from those days. This information can take many different forms, and archaeologists use many different tools and techniques to investigate them. In some ways archaeologists are like detectives, trying to piece together clues over time to figure out what happened in the past. This information can be important to Samoans today because this is one method for understanding the long-term history of Samoan culture.

The earliest evidence of people living in Samoa came from Mulifanua Village on Upolu Island where many pieces of broken clay pots were discovered in the 1960’s. These pieces, dated back to 2700-2900 years ago, were especially important because they bore the distinctive artwork designs that belonged to an early Pacific culture called “Lapita”. About 2700-3000 years ago, the Lapita people spread from the Bismarck Archipelago in Papua New Guinea to many Pacific islands. These were the first humans to find and settle places like Vanuatu, New Caledonia, Fiji, Futuna, Uvea, and Tonga. In the Samoan archipelago, the Mulifanua site is the only Lapita site that has been found anywhere, in spite of three decades of searching.

For about the next 1000 years, the ancient people of Tutuila and Manu’a made undecorated clay pottery called Samoan Plain Ware. These were mostly open bowls with round bottoms, similar in size to eating and mixing bowls that people use in their kitchens today. Villages or areas with archaeological sites where Samoan Plain Ware has been found include: Afono, Aganoa, Alega, Aoa, Asufou, Aunu’u, Auto, Faleniu, Fatumafuti, Kokoland, Leone, Malaeimi, Malaeloa, Mesepa, Pavaia’i, Puna  Pava’ia’i/Faleniu), Tafuna, Ta’u Village, Toaga (Ofu), Utumea (east), Vaipito (Pago Pago), and Vaoto (Ofu).

About 1500 years ago, people in Samoa stopped making pottery for unknown reasons. While pieces of broken pottery scattered over an area give archaeologists a great way to find archaeological sites, archaeologist can also look for large features constructed from rock by humans. These include house foundations (fale), terraces (lau mafola), walls (pa), grinding stones (foaga), and platforms (tia) that are visible on the ground surface.

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