Falemauga Caves: understanding Samoa’s ancient history

Falemauga Caves

Entrance to the main shea (1957 photo) Heaped sc in the main gallery (1957 photo) Falemauga Caves are large natural ca s in a series of lava tunnels located in the Tuamasaga area along the central ridge of Upolu Island in Samoa. The caves have been studied by archaeologists in Samoa with evidence of human occupation in the prehistoric period. They were also used as a place of refusal by the Tuamasaga people.

The caves were explored and excavated in the early 1940s by New Zealand anthropologist Derek Freeman, who published his report in the Journal of the Polynesian Society in 1944. The waders were found to have platforms built of stacked heather, charcoal, stone adzes, and sea shells.

In Samoan, the name Falemauga can be broken down into two words, feil , meaning “home” and gga , meaning “mountain.


The Falemauga Kawes Islands are located in the Falemauga region, about 6 miles southwest of Apia, the capital of Samoa. The entrance to the main tunnel system is about five and a half miles south (inland) of the coastal village of Malie.


When Freeman studied the caves in 1941, they were all located on a plantation owned by ‘Mr. С. W. Mackenzie of Apia. ‘During his field work, Freeman stayed at Mackenzie’s home in Falemauga, located about 900 feet from the caves. Before Mackenzie, the land was formerly owned by the German Paul Schroeder, whose son, Mr. H. H. Schroeder, discovered the caves in 1914. The caves were visited in August, 1914, by members of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force then occupying the country. In 1920 they were visited by Dr. J. Allan Schson, director of the Dominion Museum in New Zealand. Other scientists who have visited the caves include Jack Golson, who explored them in 1957, and prominent archaeologist Janet Hidson.


The caves are part of a lava tube, the result of old lava flows near an extinct volcano called Sigaele in the volcanic interior of the island. The islands of Samoa are one of the high volcanic islands that have resulted in geological formations, including caves and lava tubes, some of which originate as conduits and form natural springs around the islands’ coastline, such as the Mata-o-le-Alelo basin on Savaii Island and the Piula-Kave basin on Upolu Island.

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Freeman describes the entrance to the tunnels in his report as nearly circular and measuring approximately 50 feet in diameter. The elevation at this point averaged about 1,555 feet above sea level.

The ripped opening divided the once unified tunnel into two sections, one to the north and one to the south. Freeman called the northern section the North Cave and the southern section the South Cave. The North Cave was much longer than the South Cave. Both caves were inhabited by Pe ‘ape’ a ( Collocalia francica), a species of swift and many small bits.

North Kav.

The entrance to North Cave was extremely limited and only four and a half feet high and three feet wide. The length of North Caw was 1,408 feet. It averaged 25 feet wide until about 850 feet from the entrance was Amphitheater (maximum width 56 feet) of considerable size, which formed the center of a series of branches. The first branch was 150 feet, the second was 900 feet, beyond which it was too limited for Freeman’s measurement. Heights ranged from 4 ft. at the entrance to 30 ft. in the amphitheater.

South Cave

Unlike the enclosed North Cave entrance, the South Cave entrance was 30 feet wide and about 20 feet high. It was 513 feet long from the entrance to the entrance and had no branching.


An elaborative swarm-platform system was found in the trunks, built mostly by pieces of fallen lava rock and built about 2 to 3 feet above the floor of the trunks. Freeman recorded 152 platforms, 129 in the north and 23 in the south. He also found numerous places of umu cooks , fireplaces, and kitchen- as well as several ele type of red volcanic rock used as a natural dye for Samoan siapo or tapa, a traditional cloth bark material. He found five stone adzes, four in North Kawa and one in South Kawa, a common type of prehistoric adze found in Samoa. A small round stone was found by a platform, which Freeman suggested was used for sharpening and polishing.

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