• Solomon Islands!

    Solomon Islands: Looking up at palm trees. Go Now!

    Solomon Islands
    This Melanesian country is best known for its many islands and beaches... and this natural landscape (pictured) is why most people go. Don't miss out on the unique Melanesian culture and foods though! Begin Your Journey!

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    Tonga: Coastline. Go Now!

    The heart of Polynesian culture is rooted in Tonga, but most visitors just come for the natural beauty. Explore Tonga!

  • Vanuatu!

    Vanuatu: Jetty into the ocean. Go Now!

    Picturesque serenity is a good way to describe Vanuatu, but the culture offers much more, including the inspiration for bungee jumping, which remains a rite of passage for young men. Explore Vanuatu!

  • Palau!

    Palau: "70 Islands!" Go Now!

    Few people have even heard of this small Micronesian country, but those who have often return with stories of beauty unmatched elsewhere, such as view of the "70 Islands" (pictured). Go Now!

  • Explore the: Federated States of Micronesia!

    Federated States of Micronesia: Overlooking some islands. Go Now!

    Federated States of Micronesia
    This diverse country stretches for thousands of miles and has the diversity to prove it, including the people from Chuuk, Pohnpei, and Yap among others. Begin Your Journey!

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    Samoa: A traditional home. Go Now!

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History of the Marshall Islands

The ancestors to today's residents of the Marshall Islands likely arrived in the 1000s BC, although a more precise date is unknown. These early people, the Micronesians, may not have been the first people to the islands though as differing groups of people from Southeast Asia may have arrived as early as 2000 BC and it is likely later groups from the same region arrived in successive waves.

Who were the earliest settlers is debatable as is their culture and way of life. Little remains to clarify their lifestyle, although it is believed that they lived off the land by hunting, gathering food, and fishing. They probably lived simple lives and traveled from island to island by using basic wooden canoes.

It seems the people were divided into clans or jowi, each of which was led by a chief or iroij. The people lived simple lives off the land and because of this the land was and still is very important to the people as each jowi is tied to their lands, which are passed from generation to generation through the mother's line.

Written history, as well as knowledge about the people and their culture to the outside world only arrived in the 1500s with the arrival of the earliest Europeans. Among these early explorers, colonization wasn't sought and few stayed long enough to do more than drop off their European diseases, which killed much of the local population. Alonso de Salazar from Spain was likely the first European to step foot on the islands when he did so in 1529. The next significant explorers to arrive were John Marshall and Thomas Gilbert from the United Kingdom, who came in 1788 and after whom the Marshall Islands are now named.

Even these explorers did little to alter the people's culture or way of life, but this changed in 1874 when Spain claimed the islands and the foreign influences began. The Germans also sought the islands so Spain gave them up for a few million dollars, after which point the Germans began settling a few of the islands as these new towns became trading posts.

The Germans saw economic gain in the islands due to their coconut production and soon trading posts were set up on a few islands. The Germans had little interest in controlling the islands though; they only sought the economic gain from the trade so the ethnic Marshallese continued to enjoy almost complete self-rule under their chiefs, known locally as Iroij.

Power transferred to the Japanese in the early 1900s when the Germans were pre-occupied with World War I in Europe. The Japanese continued to rule the islands until 1944 with the ending of World War II. The Americans defeated the Japanese in battles at both Kwajalein Atoll and Enewetak Atoll. The Americans left numerous forces here for the duration of the war, after which time the islands fell under American jurisdiction.

The United States used many of the atolls in the Marshall Islands as nuclear testing grounds from 1946 until the late 1950s. These nuclear tests have done irreversible damage to many of the atolls, the local population, and the wildlife in the region from coral reefs to sea life and more.

Outside the nuclear tests, the Americans did little to alter the culture other than introduce new technologies. The people continued to essentially self-rule their islands through this time, but communication and infrastructure improved with new technology.

In 1979 the United States granted the Marshall Islands greater independence (although full independence wasn't gained until 1986). Since that time the political scene has been fairly peaceful and quiet. The greatest political splashes have come with the United States. The two nations work together in a free association (which puts the United States in control of the Marshall Islands' defense), while the United States continues to control Kwajalein Atoll via payments and has also given the government of the Marshall Islands money as compensation for past nuclear testing.

The other political debate has come in controlling the government. The iroij dominated the political scene until 1999 when elections began to actually represent the people. This change is a symbolic shift in the culture as well. For centuries the culture and people have lived in a very tribal society as local chiefs controlled the political, economic, and even social lives of the people as there were few to no complaints regarding this system. Perhaps due to outside influences, the people have been empowered as they have taken control over the political scene and the people no longer see the iroij as unquestionable leaders, although they continue to receive a great deal of respect.

This page was last updated: February, 2013