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The first Samoans: archaeology of Tutuila and Manu’a

September 17, 2012

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.


The most complete archaeological site from the Dark Ages is an ancient village buried under the ground at Fatumafuti on Tutuila. People started to use the site about 1500 years ago when sea-levels in the Pacific fell to their current level. Before this, Fatumafuti and similar coastal areas would have been open reef and water right to the edge of the mountains. It was only after sea-levels fell that sand and coral could begin to build up and form the coastal shelf we see today. After a beach developed at Fatumafuti, people presumably began using the area and eventually they built houses there. We know from the remains of their food (shells and bones) that they ate a lot of fish and mollusks from the reef like alili (turban snails), faisua (giant clams), and aliao (top snails). The burial sites at Fatumafuti tell us that changes must have occurred in people’s belief system, because the early burials are all oriented parallel to the beach, but the later burials are perpendicular to the beach.

About 700 years ago, the people of Fatumafuti were involved in manufacturing stone tools, primarily the adze which was used for carving wood. An adze consists of a stone blade lashed to a wooden handle by coconut twine. The grinding stones used to sharpen the adze blade can be recognized by the bowl-shaped depressions on their surface (see photo below). Tutuila was a major export center for stone tools in the Pacific at this time. Stone tools from Tutuila have been found on islands as far away as the Solomon Islands, Pohnpei, and Cook Islands.

Grinding stone featuring shallow bowls used to sharpen adzes.


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