History could be changed by Pulemelei and Letolo discoveries

The Letolo Plantation and the Pulemelei mount contained within in could radically shape what we know about Samoa’s history before European arrival, but that opportunity could be lost if the land goes up for sale.

In the wake of the 1150 acre plot being listed for sale by the company that owns it, the Centre for Samoan Studies archaeology department is urging for Samoans to care more about preserving sites for heritage.

Adjunct Professor Leasiolagi Dr. Malama Meleisea said the scale of historical sites in just the Letolo Plantation alone – from old foundations (tulaga fale), earth ovens (umu ti), walls, roads, ditches and forts – tell a very different story from the one we tell today.

“One of the assumptions we have been passing down to our students is that Samoa’s population must have been very low,” Leasiolagi told the Samoa Observer.

“What we have found behind Palauli so far are huge areas of development which required a lot of labour and a lot of organisation, which suggests that there were lots of people involved in building a complex that big.”

Not only that, but the Pulemelei mound – the largest historical man-made site in Polynesia, measuring 65 by 60 metres and 12 metres in height – is nearly three kilometres inland and surrounded by clear signs of dense habitation. 

To Leasiolagi, and Research Archaeologist Gregory Jackmond that proves Samoans lived in larger populations inland for a long time, and that the move to the coast is relatively recent.

“A lot of people think we were born and grew up on the coastal areas and the narrative of the village existence are all based on coastal stories,” Leasiolagi said.  

“This is clear evidence that the move to the coast was relatively recent.”

And from what has already been surveyed, the researchers know the entire country holds troves of information just like in Letolo.

Mr. Jackmond said at some point the population of Samoa may have been in the millions, living all over the islands and not exclusively on the coast as has been assumed. 

“The whole area is just littered with stuff,” he said of a small site he surveyed north of the modern village of Sapapalii. 

With more research, archaeologists could learn more about the structure of society, and the activities of the population. 

“It’s always been assumed that what the missionaries found in 1830 was what Samoa was like before. That is sort of the trap that all archaeologists and anthropologists fall into.”

But this is just the beginning of answering myriad questions about what life was like in Samoa before Europeans arrived with their diaries and cameras when history was captured orally and could have been lost to disease and disaster.

Mr. Jackmond said without a site like the plantation, those answers are going to be hard to find. 

Using LiDAR, or Light Detection and Ranging, researchers have discovered hundreds of platforms measuring 50 by 50 metres, that to this day no one knows what they were used for, who built them or when. 

In Sili, the LiDAR imaging reveals a platform 200 by 100 metres, bigger than a football field.

Some are not visible without the LiDAR imaging, which means they might not be recognisable immediately as historically significant and could be bulldozed for development. 

“Sometimes when we ask the village about a platform they go oh, you mean that hill? Because it doesn’t look like someone could build it.

“We know so little about what all this means, we have no clue what any of this means.”

Lecturer and Researcher Dionne Fonoti said Samoa needs to invest in protecting these areas and using them to learn about its own history.

Without them, the country risks losing ownership of that history, either to someone else entirely or simply to no one if the sites are destroyed.

“If we don’t record this, and somebody doesn’t record this, then either nobody does, or somebody who doesn’t know anything records it. Then somebody else writes our histories,” she said. 

“We don’t want Samoa to get to the point like other places in the Pacific where other people have written their histories and usually been incorrect, or pushed the indigenous people to the margins and so they have disappeared in lots of different ways from narratives, from their role as the original stewards of places.”

In America where Mr. Jackmond is from, this happened to First Nations tribes trying to study their past and heritage only to find indistinguishable rubble in its place.

“When it’s lost, it’s lost forever. You can’t go back and hope to find it, it’s gone. IT would be a terrible thing to lose that,” he said. 

“Samoans seem so proud of their heritage and the thing is, they are proud of something we really don’t know that much about. What they know they know from 1800 on but from before that we don’t know that much.”

The deadline for expressions of interest in buying the Letolo Planation from its owners O.F. Nelson Properties Limited is 01 December.

Mr. Jackmond has actually made an offer himself, of US$100,000. He said he imagines it won’t be taken seriously but hopes the University can have a role in taking care of the significant site.

In Palauli, the Alii ma Faipule of the village of Vailoa has written an online petition asking the Government of Samoa and the United Nations Education, Scientific and Culture Organisation to stop the sale and return the lands to Vailoa village. 

The petition has already gathered 1,891 signatures in the two weeks it has been online. 

Bg pattern light


Subscribe to Samoa Observer Online

Enjoy access to over a thousand articles per month, on any device as well as feature-length investigative articles.

Ready to signup?