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Falemauga caves provide insight into ancient Samoan history

This black and white photo from the 1950s shows the entrance into the main shaft of the Falemauga Caves on Upolu island in Samoa.

Falemauga Caves, SAMOA — Among the most striking natural wonders are the Falemauga Caves in Samoa. These caves are not just natural wonders, they’re important archaeological sites that have provided unprecedented insights into Polynesian prehistory.

The cave complex appears to have played an important part in Samoan history. There is evidence that supports the theory that the first people to settle on the islands that make up Samoa, about 3000 years ago, were the Lapida. They and their descendants populated many islands in the Pacific. However, this is not accepted by all, and many experts claim that Austronesian migrants were first to reach Samoa.

The caves were the subject of extensive archaeological investigations during the 1940s by the famous New Zealand anthropologist Derek Freeman. Later they were also excavated and photographed by American Peace Corp volunteers in the 1970s.

Archaeologists also found umu cooking sites — types of earth ovens that are still used to this day in Samoa. Fireplaces and dumping grounds, consisting mainly of shells and pig bones, were also found. Many coconut shells were discovered and they were possibly lit to provide light.

One of the more interesting finds in the cave was a soft volcanic rock that is still used as a natural dye in the manufacture of traditional Samoan clothes. Five stone axes were uncovered as well as a type of whetstone for sharpening implements. 

The name of the caves in Samoan means ‘house in the mountain’. It is believed that the cave systems could have been used as a place of refuge during times of war and danger. Derek Freeman speculated that Falemauga may have been used for cave burials. This was based on the alleged discovery of a skull on one of the many platforms in the caverns sometime around 1900.