Volume 73 1964 > Volume 73, No. 2 > Petroglyphs in American Samoa, by William K. Kikuchi, p 163 - 166
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The first petroglyphs found in the Samoan Islands were discovered by the author and Dr. Yosihiko Sinoto during two archaeological site surveys of the islands of American Samoa during 1961 and 1962. 1

Samoan petroglyphs can be divided into European (historic) and pre-European (prehistoric) types which are readily distinguishable by motifs and - 164 designs, especially at sites where both pre-European and post-European petroglyphs occur together. Petroglyphs have been found at three sites in American Samoa: at Leone and Leata, on Tutuila, and at Fitiuta, on Tā'ū; two sites belong to the pre-European type and the other to the post-European type. Although there is a distinct gap in design and motifs between the two periods, there is a common reason or purpose for carving the petroglyphs which will be discussed later.

Two types of rock were used for carving. A relatively flat-surfaced, soft, ash tuff was easily carved with stone tools. The second type of rock was a porous pahoehoe form of black basalt. This volcanic rock was also easily worked. The methods of carving were (1) pecking (shaping by hammering the stone with a sharp pointed instrument), (2) bruising (shaping by rubbing the surface with another stone), and (3) abrading (a combination of pecking and bruising). The petroglyphs range in depth from a fraction of an inch to about an inch and a half. This seems to indicate purposeful, careful workmanship of an artisan rather than playful sketching or the work of children.


Pre-European type petroglyphs were found in two villages in American Samoa. The first site was located in the lagoon of Leone village on the island of Tutuila on an intrusive shelf of ash called Papaloa. This rock consists of three shelves separated by two narrow eroded channels of shallow water. The entire length of the shelf measures between 150-200 feet.

The central shelf of Papaloa has the main body of carvings which falls into four groups. Each group is a cluster of carvings. The 67 prehistoric petroglyphs recorded were of a single motif. This motif consists of a hole or holes encircled with a ring of 5 to 20 additional holes. Several of these carvings overlap and share one or more holes between them. In a few cases there are 3 or 4 holes forming an unfinished concentric circle around the main completed ring of holes. Several carvings are badly eroded by wave action while others are in very good condition. Perhaps other carvings situated on the lower end of the shelf have been eroded and completely erased.

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In this group of 67 petroglyphs the outer rings of encircling holes range from 5 to 20 holes. Three petroglyphs are incomplete. Seven of the groupings of holes share one or more holes between them. Fifty-nine petroglyphs have a single centre hole, 7 have no centre holes, and 1 has 12 holes within a ring.

In addition to the four groupings of petroglyphs, a cluster of carved lines was visible; their plan and design exclude them from being part of the natural rock structure. There are indications of a human figure, a paddle and a human foot. On the adjoining shelf of rock, west of the central shelf, three petroglyphs were found. One seems to be a drawing of a squid or octopus. The other two carvings are difficult to interpret.

The only other site where pre-European petroglyphs were found was on the coastline behind Fitiuta village on the island of Tā'ū. The two petroglyphs found here are similar to those of Papaloa rock on Tutuila. One of the petroglyphs is shaped like a fishhook; it has 9 encircling holes but no central hole. The other petroglyph is a simple cluster of 4 or 5 holes. These petroglyphs are carved in vesicular basalt.


Post-European petroglyphs were found on Tutuila at Lealā near the village of Vailoatai, located on the coastline. The area consists of deposits of thin ash strata which easily flake into very thin layers when subjected to erosion from wind, rain, and salt spray. Part of the area is rapidly being eroded. Possibly, old petroglyphs have already been erased.


The petroglyphs at this site consist of names, squares, and carvings of ships. The majority of carvings were made by boys from the Marist Brothers School who have carved their names on every flat surface in the area. Petroglyphs of squares and rectangular boxes which resemble hop-scotch drawings are engraved on any large flat surface. Carvings of sailing ships depict boats which have one, - 166 two or four masts. Ship carvings show positions of lines, rudder, and flag, which indicate the carvers were acquainted with ships and sailing. The ships range from 1 to 4 feet in length. Several of the larger ones are badly eroded. The ship petroglyphs are in an area isolated from the other petroglyphs.


The Samoans have forgotten the origin and purpose of the petroglyphs and were surprised to learn that their ancestors had made the rock carvings. No legends or traditions known to the author mention these rock carvings. Several chiefs relegated these petroglyphs to the pagan past of Samoa or to foreigners from other Pacific islands.

My interpretation is that the petroglyphs commemorate the presence of a person or persons in the area. These petroglyphs were the signatures of individuals and groups. The prehistoric carvings seem to symbolize a group of people on a malaga (journey), as indicated by the circle of holes. The central hole or holes located within the circle would indicate the chief or chiefs leading the journey, while the series of holes encircling the central holes symbolizes the members of the retinue. The central holes may also indicate a canoe or canoes while the encircling holes signify the crew of the vessel. The line drawings of the paddle, human figure and the human footprint are realistic sketches.

The petroglyphs observed so far in Samoa allow a possible evolutionary interpretation. The earliest form utilizes clusters of holes to commemorate the presence of groups of people; a later form, the line drawings, indicate a crude symbolization of individuals; a still later form is that which depicts ships; and finally, the Anglicized names signify a specific person.

No petroglyphs have yet been reported for the other Samoan islands, but doubtless they are there. Petroglyphs from other Pacific islands such as Tonga, 2 Fiji, 3 and New Caledonia 4 do not seem to be related to the petroglyphs found in Samoa. There is very little information on the petroglyphs in islands near Samoa so that comparison is not possible.

  • EDITOR, 1911. “Sculptures on Stone, New Caledonia.” Journal of the Polnyesian Society, 20:162.
  • HILL, Walter, 1955. “Some Rock Carvings of Natewa Bay and Nasavusavu.” Transactions and Proceedings of the Fiji Society, 5:74-84.
  • KIKUCHI, William K., 1963. Archaeological Surface Ruins in American Samoa. Honolulu, University of Hawaii, unpublished M.A. thesis.
  • McKERN, W. C., 1929. Archaeology of Tonga. Honolulu, Bernice P. Bishop Museum Bulletin, 60.
  • SNOW, P. A., 1950. “Rock Carvings in Fiji.” Transactions and Proceedings of the Fiji Society, 4:71-83.
1   Kikuchi 1963:94.
2   McKern 1929:78-80.
3   Hill 1955:74-84; Snow 1950:71-83.
4   Editor 1911:162.