Samoan Star Mounds Baffle Archaeologists
Detection of scores of ancient ‘Star Mounds’ baffle archaeologists on Samoa. Samoa is in the South Pacific Ocean, and it has a tropical climate with thick rain forests and almost impassable volcanic ridges.
In 1988 doctors T. L. Hunt and P. V. Kirch from the University of Washington published An Archaeological Survey of the Manu’s Islands detailing the extensive excavations in American Samoa which were carried out by the multi-institutional Polynesian Culture History Programme in the 1960s. The Manuʻa Islands Group of American Samoa consists of three main islands: Taʻu, Ofu and Olosega and it is here that in the 1960s a series of ancient man-made structures were discovered known as Tia Seu Lupe, or Star Mounds. This extensive project revealed the islands “three-millennium-long prehistory” beginning with Early Eastern Lapita pottery, and somewhere in this 3000 year time span at a yet unknown time period the star mound builders got to work.
So, it has been known that the islands are dotted with the oddly shaped ‘star mounds’, but lidar scanning of the Savai'i of Samoa has just revealed the extent of the earthworks.
80 or so star mounds have been revealed on Samoa by lidar. (Tagata Pasifika / YouTube Screenshot)
And Now There Are 80 Of Them
A new archaeological project on Samoa using Lidar aerial scanning technology has revealed hundreds of overgrown structures including about 80 ‘Star Mounds’ located in difficult to access terrain. The sheer magnitude of the star mounds’ construction suggests they were very important structures to the cultures who used them and they are mostly constructed of earth and stone in of various sizes and shapes. Some of the seat mounds are faced with coral slabs and these larger level-topped platforms measure up to 40 meters (130 ft) in diameter and 5 meters (16+ ft) high.
The term “star mounds’ describes their geometric shapes which have usually five or eight projected arms so from above the mounds resemble how we draw stars. The largest star mound stands at the center of American Samoa’s Tiaseulupe Park but rather than having rays projecting outward is has two elevations with a combined length of 34 meters (111 ft) and a height of 3 meters (10 ft).
Snaring Birds or Gods?
Having described what star mounds are we must now ask a currently unanswerable question: what, were they used for? Firstly, most of the mounds are located across rough terrain and situated high up in mountains, and archaeologists state that the larger examples would have taken several years to construct, so their purpose must have been of the most exceptional importance to the builders.
The mound-builders of North America excavated hundreds of millions of basketfuls of earth which they piled up in impressive mounds for worship and sacrifices. However, deep in the South Pacific on the islands of Tonga, a Science-Frontiers article says native people created large mounds of earth for what “seems to be a frivolous purpose: pigeon-snaring”.
Early accounts tell of Samoan Chiefs who participated in the sport of pigeon catching and the English translation of “tia seu lupe” is “platform for netting lupe” - the large fruit-eating Pacific Pigeon. This prized food was a delicacy reserved for chiefs, who often gave them in ritual exchanges, but locals believe their star mounds probably held much greater social and ritual significance.
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Did Star Mounds Have Spiritual Functions?
Assuming the mounds were “not” primarily used for catching pigeons, and that they did indeed have spiritual functions like those in North America, what or who might that worship have been focused towards? Samoan mythology is studded with a wide range of gods and goddesses, heroes and evil demons and a paper published by the University of Wellington titled ‘Myths and Legends of Ancient Samoa’ discusses: the Tree of Life, the peopling of the Earth, the Long Toothed Devil of Falelima, the war between the fish and the birds and the Story of the Sun and the Rain.
Might the mounds have been dedicated to worshiping multiple deities, like in North American cultures? According to a blog feature on glitternight.com ‘Tagaloa’ was the supreme ruler and the creator of the universe, the chief and progenitor of all other gods. ‘Gege’ cleared the Samoan island of Upolu of demons and ‘Papa’ the Earth goddess guarded the rocks beneath the islands, while ‘Foge’ and ‘Toafa’, the god and goddesses of springs, caused freshwater to magically emerge from the rocks.
Somewhat like the Christian story of God and Jesus, the chief Samoan deity, Tangaloa, sent the god of peace, Vavau, from the heavens down to the earth to bring peace to all humanity. But where American Samoan mythology differs from Christianity is that Vavau is said to still wander among humans trying to quell conflicts as they break out, while Jesus, after 2000 years, still promises to show up.
Top image: One of many star mounds now revealed on Samoa. Source: Tagata Pasifika / Youtube Screenshot
By Ashley Cowie