Pulamelei Mound


David Whitley heads to the largest man-made structure in Polynesia, and tries to work out whether it proves an old adventurer’s controversial theories right

“This track is impassable after heavy rain,�? says Warren Jopling as we plod diligently up the three kilometre collection of rubble and muck that passes as a path. Vines grow over the coconut trees, puddles are there to be leapt over. You’d hardly think we were on the way to the biggest man-made structure in Polynesia, but time hasn’t treated the Pulamelei Mound all that well. On the Samoan island of Savai’i, the land on which this mystery step pyramid sits was once a large coconut plantation. In recent years, it has been left to ruin as villagers and a private family argue in the courts about who legitimately owns the land. 

The giant stone pyramid doesn’t actually seem that large, but this is because much of it is overgrown. It blends into the land, earth and foliage covering the contours of the hidden monster. Around 17,000 cubic metres of rock went into building it, and no-one really knows why. Warren explains that the lower platform with vertical walls was probably built around 900 to 1,000 years ago, with the upper part added between 1400 and 1600. It would have taken an exceptionally organised society to build it, but the purpose remains unclear.

It’s unlikely to have been a grave, says Warren, as there’s nothing inside – just thick rock. Archaeologists from New Zealand have found conch shells on the site, which may have been used for war cries. Could it be a temple to a war god? Another odd theory is that the Pulamelei Mound was built as a platform for pigeon catching – which apparently was the sport of choice for Samoan and Tongan nobles. Warren tries to play down the theory that it was made for human sacrifices – the ancient Samoans may have been ritual cannibals at one point, but the evidence doesn’t really add up.

To most people who make it out this far, the mound is merely intriguing. For one famous visitor, however, it was evidence for a theory that he had pursued for his whole life. Thor Heyerdahl was a famous adventurer who had completed numerous improbable expeditions in his lifetime. Amongst these was sailing the wooden Kontiki raft across the Pacific Ocean in a bid to prove it could be done.

His theory was that the Polynesian people originated in South America and inhabited the Pacific Islands by raft. He pointed out a number of similarities in looks and language, and the Kontiki expedition proved that prevailing winds and currents could carry a raft that far. Heyerdahl came out to Samoa in the autumn of his years, arriving in 2002. He saw the Pulamelei Mound and instantly realised that it was built in a similar way to the pyramids and temples in Central and South America. Was this comprehensive evidence? He died thinking it was.

Most evidence suggests that Polynesian people came to the islands via Asia, and the Pulamelei Mound has been left as something of a forgotten mystery. Sitting on top of it, looking out over the lagoon and the sea, the romantic in me suggests it’s best left that way.