Students' findings challenge historical accounts

By Elizabeth Ah-Hi ,

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THE TEAM: Johannes Uili, Alna Pavitt, Telefina Potifara, Susan Pita, Aigauasoosooaumaimalouamaua Hemara – Niualuga and Alva Sene Tanielu

THE TEAM: Johannes Uili, Alna Pavitt, Telefina Potifara, Susan Pita, Aigauasoosooaumaimalouamaua Hemara – Niualuga and Alva Sene Tanielu

Historical accounts show Samoan people have always lived on the coast.

The population estimates have been conservative, around 30,000 to 50,000.

But with the help of technology, curious minds and a mobilised research team, these “theories” are being challenged by our very own students in Samoa. 

Last week, a group of students at the National University of Samoa (N.U.S) presented their findings from a two-week archeological survey conducted in the inland areas of the villages of Vaito’omuli, Fa’aala and Vailoa of the Palauli East District in Savai’i. 

The results they collected challenged historical accounts of conservative population estimates (around 30,000 -50,000) and also the common belief that Samoan people have always lived on the coast.

What the students found will not only change the way Samoan history is recorded and researched but it also provides new opportunities for village autonomy over managing and benefiting from cultural heritage tourism, while simultaneously preserving the sites.

The group of eight students worked for two weeks. The team had taken 1294 GPS way points, amassed over 353 photographs and recorded 284 archeological features. 

Confirming once again that the inland areas above the current day villages comprising Palauli East district, now used primarily for plantations and cattle farming, were once areas of dense prehistoric settlement.

The students’ findings would not have happened without the engagement between the Centre for Samoan studies and the village chiefs. 

The villages welcomed the team in June this year with an ava ceremony to demonstrate their blessings for the proposed work to proceed. 

The Matai of the villages went further and instructed their aumaga to clear up to 153 metres inland in order to assist the college students with their research.

The possibility of cultural heritage tourism became even more realistic with the discovery of these archeological features and sites.  

N.U.S Lecturer, Dionne Fonoti, says that while they didn’t foresee this happening as part of their research, they had always hoped it would have the potential to make something like this happen. 

“Starting this month for the next two years with the support of our U.N.D.P partners, we now have a new project called ‘recording and protecting Samoan cultural landscapes through the community heritage management’ project which will basically see us going back to these villages and working with these three village communities to establish cultural heritage sites,” Ms. Fonoti said. 

“We can see a good combination of tourism which is revenue generating, it supports communities and it supports families and combining with that some of the work we do here which is cultural heritage management we hope then that we can create something that benefits them as well as benefits us and the future of Samoa.”

So what kind of tourist would cultural heritage sites attract?

 “We’re trying to come up with the right plan with the right partner. 

“Your regular tourist is not the same as an eco tourist or heritage or adventure tourist. It’s about tailoring the marketing to people like that and planning these spaces so that it accommodates people who are into that stuff like mountain trails, bike trails or horseback trails. 

“Making sure that we are not disturbing what’s there already and enhancing it so that people can have that experience that’s informed by the stories of the village. 

“It’s about sharing the culture, giving people what they want to experience but also preserving these sites so we can continue researching them over time.”

One of the students on the research team, who is in her final year of her Sociology and English Degree, is Alva Sene Tanielu.

She spoke to the Samoa Observer about how dabbling in the world of archeology has captivated her imagination and curiosity leaving her with many questions about Samoa’s early ancestral settlements.

“I took archeology as an elective so when the opportunity came along to go on a field trip, I took it. We went to Savai’ i and that’s when I became completely interested and then I volunteered for the second phase and then the third phase.

“What I found is that the higher you go, the more you find. 

“If we had the chance to go further, just imagine what we would find. 

“So then you kind of think back and wonder what was it like back then? How did they survive and build these massive structures with the lack of technology?

“There is a theory that it would have taken somebody of a lot of power to actually tell them to build this and build that because these things are huge. They had so many walls; they had so many walkways, elevated walkways, walled walkways and walls. And then some would just intersect and you just wonder, why?

“Honestly I don’t really want to believe the pigeon snaring theory, because why would anyone spend so much work just for pigeon snaring. 

“I know there are star mounds with eight legs and six legs and there’s just so many questions. 

“What if they were used for navigational purposes and those star mound legs were used to align with certain star constellations to map. Also other theories were explored that each leg belonged to a Matai during a fono or maybe some kind of ritual. There are so many theories, just thinking about it is so exciting.”

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