Terrestrial Food Production and Land Use in Prehistoric Samoa: An Example from Olosega Island, Manu'a, American Samoa

Article excerpt


Samoan terrestrial production is vastly under researched archaeologically and few projects explicidy explore such a topic. This paper reports a food production system found in the interior of Olosega Island, one of three islands within the Manu'a group of American Samoa. This production system was part of a divided landscape, in which the residential was separated from the nonresidential. This division was created by a large ditch that cuts across the landscape that was likely used for water diversion. Swidden horticulture was a key component in this production system, practiced upslope of the large ditch. Arboriculture occurred within the residential area downslope of the ditch. Such a production system illustrates the multiple paths cultures can take to increase production while staying resilient in their unique environment. The human population of Olosega utilized numerous ecological niches in order to minimize variance while also creating a productive food exploitation system.

Keywords: Samoa, intensification, risk management, arboriculture, swidden


Agricultural landscapes are common archaeological features in Polynesia and have served as important research topics to explore many questions about prehistoric societies (e.g. Addison 2006, 2008; Allen 2001, 2004; Field 2002; Kirch 1975, 1994; Kirch et al. 2004; Ladefoged et al. 2003; McCoy 2005; Riley 1973; Rosendahl 1972; Tuggle and Tomonari-Tuggle 1980). However, one archipelago, Samoa, is well-known for its lack of identifiable traces of cultivation, even though it developed into a complex chiefdom comparable to many others in Polynesia (Goldman 1970; Sahlins 1958). Prior research in the archipelago has failed to identify large scale cultivated landscapes with substantial surface modification similar to other regions (Carson 2006:5), although isolated features are commonly found over the landscape (see Carson 2006; Clark and Herdrich 1988, 1993) and smaller scale modified landscapes have more recently been documented (e.g. Addison and Gurr 2008; Carson 2005; Cochrane et al. 2004).

In June of 2010, an intensive and extensive survey was conducted in the interior of Olosega Island, Manu'a Group, American Samoa over an area encompassing roughly 117 hectares. While archaeological remains had been documented in the area prior to this project (e.g. Hunt and Kirch 1987; NPS 1999), only minor recording had been accomplished and no systematic survey had been conducted. Thus, the primary goal of the 2010 project was to document the settlement system present on the island, both the archaeological settlement distribution and the prehistoric subsistence patterns extant on the modern landscape. Few projects in the Samoan archipelago have had such a focus (but see Carson 2006; Clark and Herdrich 1988; Jennings and Holmer 1980; Pearl 2006), and this is the first attempt at such a project on the small islands of the Manu'a group.

A horticultural system found in the interior of Olosega Island is reported here (see also Quintus 2011). By corn-bitting present day environmental data with archaeological data obtained during survey, a picture of the late prehistoric production system on Olosega emerges, a picture which had been all but unknown except for speculation and isolated features. This survey identified a large ditch interpreted as a water control device. This ditch acts as a division in the landscape separating the main food production area from the primary residential area of the settlement. The subsistence system as a whole served to minimize variability in production, protecting against environmental and cultural perturbations. Although this work is preliminary in nature, its potential to contribute to a better understanding of prehistoric Samoan production is unquestionable.

Environmental and archaeological setting

Olosega Island is one of three small islands, with Ofu and Ta'u, which constitute the Manu'a group of American Samoa. …