The origins of the Tuvalu Islanders lie in Polynesia. Their islands were settled as part of a westwards backwash movement from established Polynesian communities like Samoa. There is no evidence to suggest pre-Polynesian settlement in this area. Settlement dates for the various islands range from the early 14th century to the mid-17th century. The 19th century saw a significant shift from an isolated, independent, self-sufficient subsistence lifestyle to one which was only a little less isolated but increasingly dependent on a range of European imports and influences.
Agriculture has traditionally involved the cultivation of trees and crops and raising a limited number of pigs and chickens. Crop production has primarily been subsistence crops comprising coconut, babai or pulaka (swamp taro), taro, breadfruit, pandanus, banana, pumpkin, sweet potatoes and pawpaw. Home gardening is practiced but constrained by damage caused by roaming animals (pigs and chickens) lack of inputs and water availability. The traditional farming system is characterized by groves of coconut trees with various layers of crops inter-planted between the trees, including family owned pits in which swamp taro and giant taro are cultivated. The use of the pits facilitates the plants’ ability to access the thin water lens, however currently seawater inundation is resulting in a decline in production and abandonment of some pits. The coconut tree dominates agricultural production both for household purposes and commercial activity.
Livestock production in the country is at subsistence level, with pigs and free-range chicken being the main livestock kept.
From the UNDP Land Resource Survey in the 1980s
1) Niutao, Nanumaga and Niulakita, which are an reef islands, appear to have a greater intensity of land use or have better land management practices in that there is a high proportion of coconut woodland, low percentage of scrubland, broadleaf woodland and thick undergrowth and in the case of Niutao and Nanumaga a low proportion of abandoned pulaka pits (Niulakita does not have any pits).
2) Nui, Nukulaelae, Nukufetau, and Funafuti, which are all atolls, have a high proportion of scrub and bush, and thick undergrowth in much of the coconut woodland and a large percentage of abandoned pulaka pits, all suggestive of poorer land management and less intensive land use.
3) Nanumea and Vaitupu are intermediate in terms of land use intensity and land management practices compared with the other two groups.
Overall population pressure on the rural land resource appears greatest in group 1 and least in the group 2, notwithstanding the fact that Funafuti has the largest population of any island.