ALIA Expedition
Ancient beliefs, Contemporary Facts & Amalgamation

Through the dimensions of time, nature has always empowered the intuition of humans. It has served as the nurturing womb to which knowledge and culture birthed, yet has countlessly succumbed to the exploits of humanity.

Polynesian ancestors considered nature (environment) an intrinsic aspect of their lives. Above all, they perceived it as a living entity. Through the behavioral integration of mind, body, and soul (spirit), they were able to understand, interpret, and incorporate this reality into their physical and spiritual lives. In turn, nature allowed them the gift of success, and a chance to learn more about her dynamic ways.

This discussion embodies the realms of knowledge and understanding between the old and new worlds of Samoa. It emphasizes the genesis of the Samoan islands as inferred by ancient and modern scientists respectively, specifically in the context of human-environment relationships. It is not an exhaustive account of the subject, but merely, a surficial representation of existent similarities.

Ancient scientists here refer to the early ancestors of Samoa, while modern scientists encompass those (all personnel) on the current Alia expedition.

The Genesis of Samoa: Island Evolution and Human Interpretation

1. Ancestral Explanation

The Samoan islands have been home to humans for more than 3,000 years. Traversing east for thousands of kilometers across the vast Pacific Ocean in fleets of catamarans (Alia in Samoan), humans discovered, populated, and developed their own unique culture in the islands which they named Samoa. Or so this is the understanding of most modern scientists who base their conclusions on the various forms of tangible evidence in existence.

Ancestral Samoans had a different perception of where they came from. They believed that Tagaloaolagi (The Great Spirit) manifested them as physical beings onto the islands that he had created for them. They believed that they were the progeny of nature itself, and that they came from no place else but Samoa. Upon the sequential birthing of the major inter-related elements (earth, air, water, and soil), nature gave birth to life.

In all societies (modern and indigenous), religious interpretation of creation was (and still is to an extent) favored as the legitimate explanation of how the Earth and her consequent elements manifested. In comparison, a lot of modern scientists accept that a "higher power" presided over the earth’s evolution, and that science is but a tool to understanding how this entity went about doing it. Though to this day, scientists have never been able to prove this entity’s existence.

Reverend Thomas Powell’s documentation of the story of creation as portrayed in Samoan oral history is a near accurate account of ancient scientific belief. This is due to the fact that his work was carried out shortly after 1830, the arrival of the first Christian missionaries in Samoa. It is therefore less likely to be corrupted by their influence.

Given below are excerpts from his accounts on how the Samoan islands formed according to ancient belief:

The god Tagaloa dwelt in the Expanse; he made all things; he alone was (there); not any sky, not any country …

… Then the Earth was brought forth (that is the parent of all the people in the world); and the Sky was produced; and the sea was brought forth … and the fresh-water sprang up … and Tui-te'e-lagi (sky proper) was brought forth … then came forth llu, 'Immensity', and Mamao, 'Space', (that was a woman) … then came Niuao (clouds) … then Lua-ao (two clouds), a boy, came forth … and Lua-vai (water hole), a girl, came forth … Tagaloa appointed these two to the Sa-tua-lagi (behind the sky) … Then Tagaloa spoke again, and Aoa-lala (aoa, a native tree branch), a boy was born and (next) Ao-gao-le-tai (open sea), a girl …

… Then Tagaloa went to and fro to visit the land, his visit began in the place where are (now) the Eastern groups (Manu’a), these groups were made to spring up …


… Then he turns his face to this Manu'a, and caused Savai'i to spring up … and the Land of Upolu … and the land of Tutuila …

… Then came Man; then came the Spirit; then the Heart; then the Will; then Thought ...

… Then Tagaloa made an ordinance; Let the Spirit and the Heart and Will and Thought go on and join together inside the Man; and they joined together there and man became intelligent. And this was joined to the earth ('Ele-'ele), and it was called Fatu-ma-le-'Ele-'ele (Heart and the Earth), as a couple, Fatu the man, and 'Ele-'ele, the woman …

The excerpt clearly illustrates the sequential order within which earth and its elements formed, as understood by the ancients. It also outlines their belief of the sequence that Samoan islands formed in, showing similarities to modern scientific belief. The human personification of nature’s components may have been a simple symbolic method of documenting their knowledge. It was perhaps considered an easier form to relate to (taking into account that ancient documentation was in the form of oral tradition) and a more effective means of passing the knowledge on through various generations.

Modern geologists are still using the method of human characterization of Earth elements. This is evident in the naming of the respective seamounts discovered on the Alia expedition, where one can argue that they are being given male and female names alike. Depending on human interpretation in the relative future, people may refer to them as males and females respectively.

Of importance though is the fact that the ancients developed a method of explaining their existence and that of their physical environment. Using epistemological means, they deployed qualitative scientific methods in order to acquire a form of understanding. Consequently, this understanding later developed into knowledge, which then served to influence their ideological and subsequent sociological culture.

With respect to this discussion, it is the similarity between ancient knowledge of Samoan island evolution with modern quantitative knowledge that is of significance. This will be conversed in the next section.

2. Amalgamation with modern scientific explanation

The sequence within which the Samoan islands formed is of primary concern to this dialogue. The ancients believed that Manu’a (most eastern group of the Samoan chain) formed first, followed by Savai’i, Upolu, and finally Tutuila (refer to the excerpt given above). This implies that Manu’a is the oldest, and Savai’i (the most western island in the chain) is next, with the two central islands (Upolu and Tutuila respectively) being the youngest.

Modern scientific findings carried out by scientists on the Alia expedition have found a similar trend. All except the Manu’a group formed in that sequence, where they are scientifically proven to be the youngest subaerial islands in the chain. Geochronological analysis of rock samples collected from them confirms this. Modern scientists believe that a "hotspot" and its associated processes resulted in the island formations. Scientists on the Alia expedition have discovered a young and active submarine volcano (Nafanua) east of Manu’a, which is believed to be the current location of this hotspot. An absolute linear age correlation also exists in the island chain, whereby they become older with increasing distance west of the hotspot.

Based on these various forms of evidence, scientists believe that the sequential order of subaerial island formations began with Savai’i, followed by Upolu, Tutuila, and finally Manu’a, implying that Manu’a is the youngest and Savai’i the oldest. This, to an extent, complements the relative time scale of island formations as depicted by the ancients. The major difference lies in the designation of the oldest island, or, the island that formed first. The ancients’ belief that Manu’a, (the most eastern island group), was the first to form does not support the hotspot theory of modern scientists. According to this theory, Savai’i formed first. Thus, it should be the oldest. But it is slightly more complicated than this, making the theory highly subject to debate.

Savai’i is anomalous in that it does not quite fit the linear age progression. Age analyses of surface rocks on Savai’i show it to be the youngest, which neither complements ancient nor modern (hotspot theory) belief. Hypothetically though, scientists believe it does, for reasons that are beyond the scope of this discussion. It should be noted that recent rock samples collected offshore of Savai’i coasts (on the Alia expedition) will be used to clarify this dilemma, as the island has experienced recent volcanism that might serve to obscure its true age.

In contrast, the ancients believed Manu’a to be the oldest. Their belief may have resulted from the acceptance that it was peopled first. Hence, the conviction that it was created first. The same may be said of Savai’i, Upolu, and Tutuila, where ancient belief holds that the islands were peopled in that order.

Ignoring these differences, one should see that the sequential formation of Savai’i, Upolu, and Tutuila in both beliefs are the same, assuming the hotspot theory to hold true. Manu’a is the exception when compared against the ideal aspects of this theory. As stated earlier though, the hotspot theory when applied to the Samoan islands is debatable, although it is accepted as being true for the purpose of this discussion.

These assumptions might lead one to argue then that a 75% correlation exists between the respective understandings of relative island formations. Yet, the means by which the scenarios were interpreted are very dissimilar.

Regardless of which, it remains certain that both sets of scientists employed structured methods of inquiry to reach conclusive and accepted knowledge. It is only a matter of time before the current understanding of Samoan island evolution manifests into a newer form.

Synthesis: The broader meaning …

So what does this mean in the broader context?

To start, it should serve as the basis to understanding the generic links between ancient and modern science in Samoa, and the respective forms of knowledge regarding the islands’ evolution. It should also serve as the means to appreciating how the particular forms of knowledge were acquired through differing forms of scientific applications. But above all, it should be the foundation of Samoan respect for ancient beliefs, and their transition into the modern world.

"The voyage to understanding through time is fundamental for the survival of humanity. It paves the way for opportunities in this ever-increasing world of difficulties. Its spirit will never die, until humanity itself deems it".

"E utiuti le folauga, ae faavavau lona agaga".


Shaun Williams onboard the R/V Kilo Moana.
25 April, 2005

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