History & Culture
The history of Samoa can be told in different ways. There is traditional history which has been handed down from generation to generation; and textbook history, which has been interpreted by modern day historians. Which should we use? Each is open to debate, as no-one is certain about the origins of Polynesians and the stories of chiefly power struggles will be interpreted by different families in different ways.
What follows is one interpretation of Samoan history, to which can be added the stories and legends that have been handed down from the forefathers...
According to archaeological, linguistic and climatic evidence Polynesians descended from Southeast Asia. Other theories suggest Polynesians may have come from South America or that they may have been descendants of the Lapita people, who originated from northern Papua New Guinea and spread though New Caledonia, Fiji, Tonga and Samoa around 1500BC.
Traditionally, the Samoan people originated from the earth, descendants of Tagaloa Lagi, the Supreme God of the 9th Heaven.
The oldest known site of human occupation in Samoa is a village partly submerged in the lagoon at Mulifanua on Upolu dating back to about 1000BC. This site is associated with the Lapita people who left pieces of Lapita pottery. There are also thought to be hundreds of ancient fortifications around the country that were built to defend the villages against attack by rival districts. One of the largest of these can be found in Luatuanu'u on the road to Solosolo.
Other ancient archaeological sites, called star mounds, are found around the islands (e.g. Faleu, Pule Melei, Tufutafoe). These are large stone mounds that may have been used by chiefs for snaring pigeons. The Pulemelei is the largest of these and may have been used as a temple of some kind.
Where does the name palagi come from?
In the early days, Samoans believed the earth ended where the sky met the sea and they were shocked by the arrival of the strange white people in their ships. They called them the papalagi, believing they had either burst through the sky or had lifted up the sky and passed underneath.
Legend has it that the goddess of war, Nafanua, predicted that a new religion would come from the sky and be accepted by Samoans. It is thought that this is one of the reasons why the missionaries received such a warm welcome when John Williams of the London Missionary Society came ashore at Sapapali'i, Savaii. He was welcomed by Malietoa Vainu'upo.