Samoa is a chain of nine islands in the South Pacific located about 14 degrees south of the equator and divided into two political entities—the U.S. Territory of American Samoa and the neighboring independent country of Samoa (formerly Western Samoa until 1997). The Samoan archipelago is primarily volcanic and comprises of three major islands, Savai’i, Upolu, and Tutuila, and several smaller ones, including Olosenga, Ofu, Ta’u (the latter of which form the Manu’a group), and two coral atolls, Swains and Rose. The Samoan islands were formed by volcanic activity and are essentially mountains and ridges of erupted rock sitting on the Pacific Plate. Although no volcanic eruptions have been historically recorded in American Samoa, eruptions have occurred on the island of Savai’i as recently as the early 1900s.
Archaeological evidence suggests that the Samoan islands, as well as others, including Vanuatu, the Loyalty Islands, New Caledonia, Fiji, and Tonga, were first colonized by Austronesian speakers from Melanesia. These peoples were known as Lapita, makers of a distinctive dentate-design pottery who traveled east around 1300 BC as part of a major diaspora into Remote Oceania. Numerous radiocarbon dates from archaeological sites such as To’aga on Ofu and ‘Aoa on Tutuila demonstrate that Samoa and the rest of these island groups were settled by Lapita no later than 900 BC.
These first settlers were horticulturalists and skilled ocean navigators who brought with them plants and animals such as taro, pigs, dogs, and chickens. The quick dispersal of Austronesian speakers from Southeast Asia into parts of Melanesia and eventually Polynesia is attributed to their invention of the outrigger sailing canoe and mastery of various navigational techniques such as a compass using the stars.
Samoa and Tonga appear to have been the jumping-off point for Polynesian dispersal eastwards after about 500 BC. Ancestral Polynesian culture and Proto Polynesian language developed in this region between ca. 900 and 500 BC directly out of the founding Lapita cultural complex.
Archaeologically, Samoa is probably best known for its distinctive star mounds—massive rock platforms with radiating arms built by the ancient Samoans for cultural and sporting events—and stone adzes made from basalt. Large quantities of basalt debris have been found in village sites such as Maloata and Tulauta, and large basalt boulders with smooth dish-shaped concave areas, sometimes with grooves for sharpening the bits, have been found in streams and along the coast. The excellent quality of the basalt found in Tutuila made it especially attractive for ancient Polynesian tool makers. Chemical analysis of the adzes indicate that Samoan stone was highly sought after and traded or transported to islands hundreds of miles away.
The first recorded European contact of Samoa occurred in 1722, when Dutch navigator Jacob Roggeveen sighted several of the islands. He was followed by French explorers Louis-Antoine de Bougainville in 1768 and Jean-François de La Pèrouse in 1787. A monument in Aasu, Massacre Bay, is dedicated to the 12 members of La Pèrouse’s crew who were killed there. The first European Christian missionary, Englishman John Williams of the London Missionary Society (LMS), arrived in 1830. He succeeded in converting many Samoans to Christianity, and his followers had a profound impact on Samoans and their cultural lifeways.
- Clark, J., & Herdrich, D. (1993). Prehistoric settlement systems in Eastern Tutuila, American Samoa. Journal of the Polynesian Society, 102,147-186.
- Kirch, P. V. (2000). On the road of the winds: An archaeological history of the Pacific islands before European contact. Berkeley: University of California Press.
- Kirch, P. V., & Hunt, T. L. (Eds.). (1993). The To’aga Site: Three millennia of Polynesian occupation in the Manu a Islands, American Samoa. Archaeological Research Facility Contribution No. 51. Berkeley: University of California.