De-coding the Archaeological Landscape of Samoa: Austronesian Origins and Polynesian Culture

Michael Carson

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


    The archaeology of Samoa relates to two key points in Asia-Pacific culture history that may or may not be inter-connected. First, the Samoan islands are situated near the eastern limit of the Austronesian Lapita-associated expansion into Remote Oceania about 2800 years ago. Second, these islands are near the western boundary of the Polynesian cultural region, where distinctive Polynesian language, cultural practice, and archaeological material signature developed by 1000 years ago. When considering how these two points might be inter-connected, variable potential interpretations are in need of updating according to the current archaeological evidence as reviewed here. Two primary viewpoints have characterized academic debates about the relationship between the earliest and latest material culture records of Samoa. One viewpoint stresses long-term continuity, so that a direct link is claimed between Austronesian origins and Polynesian identity. Another viewpoint stresses long-term transformation, so that a disjuncture is claimed between first human settlement and later cultural developments. In fact, continuity and transformation are not mutually exclusive of each other, but rather they represent the different aspects of how a society has changed in some ways more slowly (stressing continuity) or in other ways more quickly (stressing transformation) over time. The relative values of continuity and transformation have been misunderstood in the absence of clear archaeological evidence spanning the full chronological range in Samoa. For example, sites of the earliest settlement period 2800-2500 years ago are just very few in number, so their limited records are difficult to compare with the abundant evidence of the last 1000 years. Additionally, the sites dated in the 1500-year-long range between 2500 and 1000 years ago have been under-appreciated, despite their importance in comprehending a decline and eventual loss of pottery production, change in housing forms, and emergence of stonework monument-building traditions. An updated review of Samoan archaeology here proposes a new chronological outline, covering the full sequence of 2800 years. Within the limits of available site records and radiocarbon dating, the material culture and associated contexts can be defined in at least five periods of: 1) 2800-2500 years ago; 2) 2500-1800 years ago; 3) 1800-1000 years ago; 4) 1000-200 years ago; and 5) the last 200 years. Each of these periods involved internal change, so that possible sub-periods may yet be discerned according to continued research. The transitions between each period should not be misunderstood as precisely fixed, but rather they are proposed as approximate estimates that undoubtedly will be refined with further evidence. The chronological sequence serves as a fundamental baseline for addressing several archaeological questions that otherwise have been ignored or misunderstood. The main focus here is to consider the variable rates of cultural change over time. Some aspects of the archaeological record changed more quickly or more slowly than others, but all of these factors were concurrent. Additional questions may yet be addressed more productively, for example concerning chronological change in human-environment relations, economic subsistence strategies, land-use practice, and overseas contacts. This review of Samoan archaeology potentially can serve as an example of how to reconcile notions of cultural continuity versus transformation over time. These two processes were not necessarily opposing forces, but rather they cooccurred throughout the Samoan cultural history chronology. They unfolded at variable rates and rhythms, and they were associated with changing conditions of culture and environment, as outlined in the comprehensive chronological sequence.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)1-42
    JournalJournal of Austronesian Studies
    Issue number2
    Publication statusPublished - 2015


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