The Perplexing Purpose of the Gigantic Pulemelei ‘Pyramid’ Mound of Samoa
One of the most important archaeological sites in Polynesia is the Pulemelei mound - the largest ancient monumental structure, not only in Samoa, but in the South Pacific. This monument, commonly referred to as a pyramid, is somewhat mysterious as its history and use have not been fully established. It has, however, offered experts some unique insight into Samoan history, especially its ‘Dark Ages’.
Cairns and Mysterious Sunken Paths Discovered
The site is vast, roughly the size of half an American football field. The base dimensions are approximately 210 feet (64 meters) by 200 feet (60 meters). It was made by placing local basalt stones on top of each other with no mortar to cement them and piled to a height of almost 39 feet (12 meters). The mound or pyramid has a flat top, or platform, and is in many ways reminiscent of the ‘pyramids’ built in Mesoamerica.
Mesoamerican Pyramid ( Public Domain )
The top of the mound was made level with smooth rocks taken from local streams or the shore. Interestingly, the mound was orientated towards the four cardinal points (north, south, east, and west). There is also evidence that there were a great many stone cairns built on the flat top of the pyramid and two sunken paths that lead to the mound have also been found.
The Gradual Development of the Pulemelei ‘Pyramid’
At least three major surveys of the Pulemelei mound have taken place wherein archaeologists have discovered that the site was originally a human settlement and dated it to the first century AD.
Sometime around 1000 years ago, the first mound was built upon what would had been a small village. It was much smaller than the present pyramid. Over the centuries the mound was expanded and was completed during the sixteenth century when it reached its present height and dimensions.
Oral history, which is very important in Samoan culture, indicates that the cairns found on the platform, or top of the pyramid, were built after the site had been abandoned. This was possibly in the seventeenth or eighteenth century.
The mystery regarding the use of the site is one that has perplexed experts and archaeologists ever since it was first recorded in the nineteenth century. In the late twentieth century a series of stone kilns were discovered and traces of Ti plant, believed to have medicinal properties, were found in these ovens where it was probably cooked. This plant is regularly used in cultural and religious practices making it likely that the mound was used for ritual purposes, but not exclusively so.
Ti Plant ( Public Domain )
The History of Samoa and the Pyramid
In order to understand the history of the pyramid, we need to understand the history of the Samoan islands. It was first settled by Austronesian people when they began to expand across the Pacific. Archaeological finds show that there were many settlements on the island and that they had links with Tonga in particular. However, from 750 BC until 1000 AD, there are no real finds, nor even any myths from this period, and is therefore known as the ‘Samoan Dark Ages’.
From the turn of the first millennium AD archaeological evidence, as well as stories in the islands’ oral tradition, started. The building of the mound coincided with the revival of Samoan culture and civilization and the gradual expansion of the monumental structure indicates the growing power of an elite. There is also evidence of a stratification of society, with a powerful priestly-ruler caste coming to dominate the islands.
The pyramid was possibly used by the local leaders to express their power and to emphasize their status with rituals involving the Ti plant.
It is highly likely that the pyramid was constructed for religious reasons as it was built on the Samoan island of Savai’i, which played a central role in Polynesian religion and mythology.
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Archaeological dig at Pulemelei. ( Photos by World Monument Fund )
The Hidden Location of the Pulemelei Mound
The pyramid mound is located on an abandoned plantation 2 miles from Vailoa village and is a short hike off the road through dense jungle. As there is no clear path to the monument, it’s best to hire a local guide.
The mound has not been cleared of vegetation recently and much it is hidden, but it is possible to climb the mound to enjoy the views of the island and ocean. Savai’i is still a very traditional society and visitors need to be culturally sensitive.
Accommodation near Pulemelei Mound is available.
Top image: Pulemelei Mound Source: Photo by World Monument Fund
By Ed Whelan
Clark, G., & De Biran, A. (2007). Geophysical investigations at the Pulemelei mound . Archaeology in Oceania, 42(1), 1-22
Jopling, W. A (2008) Visitor's Field Guide to Savai’i .
Martinsson-Wallin, H. (2014). Archaeological Investigations in Independent Samoa-" Tala Eli" of Laupule Mound and Beyond