Falemauga Caves Provide Unprecedented Insight into Ancient Samoan History
Samoa is located in the South Pacific and is famed for its beautiful beaches and its tropical forests. However there are also many natural wonders in Samoa, including many remarkable volcanic craters and potholes, as well as impressive caves and tunnels, some of which are world famous. Among the most striking are the Falemauga Caves. These caves are not just natural wonders, they’re important archaeological sites that have provided unprecedented insights into Polynesian prehistory.
Where are the Falemauga Caves Located?
The caves are located on Samoa’s main island of Savai'i, which is one of the largest islands in Polynesia. They’re in the region known as Falemauga, from which the caverns received their names. The caves are five miles (eight kilometers) from Malie and near Apaia, the capital of Samoa.
Falemauga Caves, an archaeological site in Samoa, photo showing large chamber with a small group of people inside. (Public Domain)
The System Formed by the Volcano
Samoa is itself a series of volcanic islands and this has produced many unique geological formations, one of which is the cave system in Falemauga. The volcano, known as Sigaele, has been extinct for millennia.
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The past history of volcanic activity created the lava tubes - over millions of years the lava cooled and hardened into volcanic rock. The entrances into the cave complex are almost circular and they are 50 feet (15 meters) in width. They are situated some 1500 feet (500 meters) above sea level in forested highlands and are home to rare species of birds and bats.
Just beyond the entrance into the complex there are entrances to two caves. As a result, the Falemauga cave system is commonly divided into a north and a south cave. Access to the north cave is difficult due to the very narrow entrance. This cavern measures 1,400 feet (400 meters) and there are many branches off the main tunnel. At the heart of this north cave is a natural amphitheater which is approximately 30 feet (9 ½ meters) in height. The south cave is much easier to enter as the entrance is wide and can even be seen from a distance. There are no branches off this tunnel and it is it some 150 feet (45 meters) long.
Entrance into the main shaft of the Falemauga Caves on Upolu island in Samoa. Photo taken 1957 by unknown photographer. (Public Domain)
Falemauga Caves Findings
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.
There are a number of platforms that form an interconnected system in the tunnels. They are made from volcanic rock that fell, or was hewn, from the roof of the caves. The rocky platforms are approximately 3 feet (0.9 meters) high. In total there are over 150 platforms and the majority of them are in the relatively inaccessible north cave. They are all located in the interior of the tunnels and far away from any natural light. 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.
Traditional Samoan umu cooking fire. (CC BY 2.0)
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.
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Parts of these Samoan Caves are Best Left to Professionals
The caves, while not far from the capital, are remote and they are in a hilly area of the main island. The area is forested and roads in the region are poor. It is advised that only professional potholers/spelunkers enter the cave system as they are potentially dangerous.
Falemauga Caves, heaped scoria in main gallery - Samoa, 1957. (Public Domain)
Top image: The natural beauty of Samoa. The Falemauga Caves offer insight into Samoan prehistory and archaeology. Source: Richard Vandewalle / Adobe Stock
By Ed Whelan
Freeman, JD. 1948. The Falemauga Caves by JD Freeman. The Journal of the Polynesian Society, Vol. 53, 1944, No. 3, p.86-106. Available at: http://www.jps.auckland.ac.nz/document/Volume_53_1944/Volume_53,_No._3/The_Falemaunga_caves,_by_J._D._Freeman,_p_86-106/p1?page=0&action=searchresult&target=#>
Hempenstall, P. 2004. "Our Missionaries and Cultural Change in Samoa". The Journal of Pacific History. Vol. 39, No.2. 39: 241–250. doi:10.1080/0022334042000250760
Ward, G, Moyle, R. 1981. Investigation of a lava tube refuge cave in Western Samoa. Available at: https://scholar.google.com/scholar?hl=en&as_sdt=0%2C5&q=falemauga+caves+samoa&btnG