Geography | European Contact | Past ResearchLapitaCeramics | Settlement Patterns | Subsistence | Artifacts/Trade | Issues


        The Samoan archipelago, is located in Western Polynesia along with Futuna, Uvea, Tonga, and Niue.  The principal islands of the archipelago running west to east, consist of: Savai'i, Apolima, Manono, 'Upolu, Tutuila, Aunu'u, Ofu, Olosega, and Ta'u.  These first four islands constitute Western Samoa and the five islands east of Western Samoa, along with Rose and Swains Atolls, make up American Samoa.
archipelago is located between 168º and 173º West Longitude, and 14º35' and 13º20' South Latitude, in the South Pacific. It is considered part of the "Polynesian Triangle" of islands that stretch from Rapa Nui (Easter Island) in the east, to New Zealand in the west, and as far north as the Hawaiian Islands. The nearest major islands to the Samoan archipelago are Tonga, located approximately 750 miles to the south-southwest, and Fiji, approximately 780 miles to the southwest. 

        The Samoan Islands were produced by a series of basaltic shield volcanoes.  The Islands are older to the West and more recent to the east.  Savai’i, on the western end, has been dated to about two and a half million years ago.  Ta’u, on the eastern end, has a date less than 10,000 years old.

European Contact

        Early contact on Samoa began with observations from the sea by Roggeveen in 1722 and Bougainville in 1768. Then in 1787, La Pérouse led an expedition on Tutuila, which ended in tragedy. 1830 launched the period of extensive European contact.

Past Research

        Archaeological research began with a late start and emphasis commenced in the Western Islands with Golson’s discovery of plain ware pottery at Vailele, ‘Upolu. This discovery extended the Lapita path to the easternmost edge of Western Polynesia. Extensive research was carried throughout Western Samoa especially by Green and Davidson, however prior to the mid 80’s very little investigation broke the skin of American Samoa which led to a spurt of archaeological projects towards the east in the early 90’s. American Samoa has dramatically expanded our knowledge of Samoan prehistory with significant sites of To’aga and ‘Aoa, which help support the Samoan prehistory time depth of three millennia based on extensive research at Mulifanua on Upolu Island in Western Samoa.


The Samoan Archipelago along with Tonga, Niue, ‘Uvea and Futuna make up Western Polynesia, also known as the ancestral Polynesian homeland of Eastern Polynesia. The ancestral Polynesian people acquired a distinctive maritime-based culture derived from the Lapita complex, which is generally characterized by the dentate-stamped pottery. This unique pottery was unearthed at the Mulifanua site in Western Samoa, establishing it as the only possible Lapita site in Samoa and also representing the easternmost point of Lapita expansion. Primary Ancestral Polynesian sites based on direct archaeological evidence of ceramics in Samoa consist of Sasoa’a, Vailele, on Upolu, and Aoa Valley and To’aga in American Samoa.


Green’s proposed Samoan-ceramic sequence begins with the Early Eastern Lapita style and concludes with the thick-walled, coarse tempered Samoan Plain Ware. Numerous Samoan Plain Ware sites are scattered throughout the archipelago. The abandonment of ceramics in Samoa is suggested to have occurred around 200 A.D. to 400 A.D.

Settlement Patterns

Throughout most of Samoan prehistory, settlement trends appeared to occupy both coastal and inland areas and were variable over space and time. Early settlements may have initially favored a coastal nucleated village settlement, and then gradually progressing inland becoming more dispersed as cultivated land in the coastal areas became exhausted possibly due to high population densities. Initial coastal settlement sites appear around 3000 B.C. Gradually, as valley floors expanded over time by drop in sea level and coastal progradation, Samoan populations expanded to other coastal areas and then dispersed elsewhere. The Falefa Valley in Western Samoa demonstrates ongoing early inland occupation and hints at early cultivation by 2000 years ago. A pattern of dispersed inland settlements moving towards more nucleated coastal villages, represents the early historic settlement pattern. Settlement features other than household units are referred to as “specialized sites” consisting of: mounds, defensive sites, quarries, terraces, walkways, and ovens. Large mounds and elaborate fortifications have been suggested to be representative of religious and political development in Western Samoa but not as likely in American Samoa due to absence of these large structures.


        Midden remains of chicken, inshore-fish, shellfish, birds, marine mammals, and sea turtles represent Samoan subsistence. Strong evidence for horticulture doesn’t appear in the archaeological record until 2,000 years ago.

Artifacts / Trade

Major Samoan artifacts consist of adzes, volcanic glass, and fishhooks. Sites such as Tataga-matau, Fagasa, and Alega Valley support the conclusion that Tutuila, American Samoa was the major source of prehistoric basalt tools in the Fiji-West Polynesia region. Early evidence of interaction between Tonga and Samoa was discovered at Mulifanua represented by a possible Tongan adze. Tataga-Matau, Samoa’s largest primary basalt complex, had basalt reaching as far as the South East Solomons. The volcanic glass comparisons of Upolu and Tutuila indicate a glass movement out of Tutuila and into Upolu around the first century A.D.

Important Issues

The interaction of human and naturally induced geomorphological changes can sometimes make locating sites very difficult. The submerged site of Mulifanua and Aoa Valley’s transformation from a valley to a bay represent this process. These types of changes may be contributing to sampling error and should be considered when locating early sites.

2) The absence of dentate-stamped Lapita sites is a significant problem yet to be solved and questions Samoan origin.

3) Abandonment of Pottery is a major issue concerning late ceramic dates. ‘Aoa’s late ceramic deposit would extend the range of pottery use by several centuries.

5) The Sasoa’a site argues for a Samoan ceramic sequence trend from thin-walled, fine tempered to thick-walled, coarse tempered.

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