Tuvaluan man in traditional costume 
The first inhabitants of Tuvalu were Polynesians so that the origins of the people of Tuvalu is addressed in the theories regarding the spread of humans out of Southeast Asia, from Taiwan, via Melanesia and across the Pacific islands to create Polynesia.

The stories as to the ancestors of the Tuvaluans vary from island to island. On Funafuti and Vaitupu the founding ancestor is described as being from Samoa; whereas on Nanumea the founding ancestor is described as being from Tonga; These stories can be linked to what is known about the Samoa-based Tu'i Manu'a Confederacy, ruled by the holders of the Tu'i Manu'a title, which confederacy likely included much of Western Polynesia and some outliers at the height of its power in the 10th and 11th centuries. The extent of influence of the Tuʻi Tonga line of Tongan kings, which originated in the 10th century; while the existence of the Tuʻi Tonga Empire is disputed, Tuvalu is thought to have been visited by Tongans in the mid-13th century and was within Tonga's sphere of influence.

Various names were given to individual islands by the captains and chartmakers on visiting European ships. In 1819 the island of Funafuti, was named Ellice's Island; the name Ellice was applied to all nine islands after the work of English hydrographer Alexander George Findlay (1812–1876). The islands came under Britain's sphere of influence in the late 19th century, when the Ellice Islands were declared a British protectorate by Captain Gibson, R. N. of HMS Curaçao between 9th and 16 October 1892. The Ellice Islands were administered as British protectorate by a Resident Commissioner from 1892 to 1916 as part of the British Western Pacific Territories (BWPT), and later as part of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony from 1916 to 1974. The United States claimed Funafuti, Nukefetau, Nukulaelae and Niulakita under the Guano Islands Act of 1856, this claim was renounced under the 1983 treaty of friendship between Tuvalu and US.

In 1974, the Ellice Islanders voted for separate British dependency status as Tuvalu, separating from the Gilbert Islands which became Kiribati upon independence. Tuvalu became fully independent within the Commonwealth on October 1, 1978. On September 5, 2000, Tuvalu became the 189th member of the United Nations.

Early history
Tuvaluans are a Polynesian people who settled the islands around 3000 years ago coming from Tonga and Samoa. During pre-European-contact times there was frequent canoe voyaging between the islands as Polynesian navigation skills are recognised to have allowed deliberate journeys on double-hull sailing canoes or outrigger canoes.

Eight of the nine islands of Tuvalu were inhabited; thus the name, Tuvalu, means "eight standing together" in Tuvaluan. Possible evidence of fire in the Caves of Nanumanga may indicate human occupation thousands of years before that. The pattern of settlement that is believed to have occurred is that the Polynesians spread out from the Samoan Islands into the Tuvaluan atolls, with Tuvalu providing a stepping stone to migration into the Polynesian outlier communities in Melanesia and Micronesia.

Tuvalu is thought to have been visited by Tongans in the mid-13th century, although it is uncertain whether they settled permanently. It was, however, within Tonga's sphere of influence, and there were regular contacts between the two island groups. Tuvalu is on the western boundary of the Polynesian Triangle so that the northern islands of Tuvalu, particularly Nui have links to Micronesians from Kiribati.

Voyages by Europeans in the Pacific
Tuvalu was first sighted by Europeans in 1568 during the voyage of Álvaro de Mendaña de Neira from Spain who is understood to have encounted the island of Nui, which he named Isla de Jesus (Island of Jesus) but was unable to land. Keith S. Chambers and Doug Munro (1980) identify Niutao as the island that Francisco Antonio Mourelle named on May 5, 1781 thus solving what Europeans had called The Mystery of Gran Cocal. Mourelle's map and journal named the island El Gran Cocal ('The Great Coconut Plantation'), however the latitude and longitude was uncertain.

In May 1819, Captain Arent de Peyster (or Peyter) of New York, as captain of the armed brigantine or privateer Rebecca, sailing under British colours, while on a voyage from Valparaíso to India, passed through the southern Tuvalu waters; de Peyster sighted Nukufetau and Funafuti, which he named Ellice's Island after an English Politician, Edward Ellice, the Member of Parliament for Coventry and the owner of the Rebecca's cargo. The next morning, De Peyster discovered another group of about seventeen low islands forty-three miles northwest of Funafuti, naming this group "De Peyster's Islands." It is the first name, however, that was eventually used for the whole island group.

In 1820 the Russian explorer Mikhail Lazarev visited Nukufetau as commander of the Mirny. Following 1819 whalers were roving the Pacific though visiting Tuvalu only infrequently because of the difficulties of landing ships on the atolls. No settlements were established by the whalers.

Peruvian slave raiders ("blackbirders") seeking workers to mine the guano deposits on the Chincha Islands in Peru, combed the Pacific between 1862 and 1865, including the southern islands of Tuvalu. The Rev. A. W. Murray, the earliest European missionary in Tuvalu, reported that in 1863 about 180 people were taken from Funafuti and about 200 were taken from Nukulaelae as there were fewer than 100 of the 300 recorded in 1861 as living on Nukulaelae.

Christian missionaries
Christianity first came to Tuvalu in 1861 when Elekana, a Christian deacon from Manihiki in the Cook Islands became caught in a storm and drifted for 8 weeks before landing at Nukulaelae. Once there, Elekana began proselytizing Christianity.

In 1865 the Rev. A. W. Murray of the London Missionary Society - a Protestant congregationalist missionary society - arrived as the first European missionary where he too proselytized among the inhabitants of Tuvalu. By 1878 Protestantism was well established with preachers on each island.

Trading firms & traders
The Sydney firms of Robert Towns and Company, J. C. Malcolm and Company, and Macdonald, Smith and Company, pioneered the coconut-oil trade in Tuvalu. By the 1870s J. C. Godeffroy und Sohn of Hamburg (operating out of Samoa) began to dominate the Tuvalu copra trade, which company was in 1879 taken over by Handels-und Plantagen-Gesellschaft der Südsee-Inseln zu Hamburg (DHPG). Competition came from H. M. Ruge and Company, and from Henderson and Macfarlane of Auckland, New Zealand. These trading companies engaged palagi traders who lived on the islands, some islands would have competing traders with dryer islands only have a single trader.

Changes occurred with steamships replacing sailing vessels. Over time the number of competing trading companies diminished, beginning with Ruge’s bankruptcy in 1888 followed by the withdrawal of the DHPG from trading in Tuvalu in 1889/90. Henderson and Macfarlane then dominated the copra trade, operating their vessel SS Archer to call on islands in Fiji, Tuvalu, and Kiribati. New competition came from Burns Philp, operating from what is now Kiribati, with competition from Levers Pacific Plantations from 1903 and from Captain E. F. H. Allen of the Samoa Shipping and Trading Company from 1911. The numbers of palagi traders declined with the supercargo of each ship dealing directly with Tuvaluans so that by 1909 there were no resident palagi traders representing the trading firms. Tuvaluans became responsible for operating trading stores on each island.

In 1892 Captain Davis of the HMS Royalist, reported on trading activities and traders on each of the islands visited. Captain Davis identified the following traders in the Ellice Group: Edmund Duffy (Nanumea); Jack Buckland (Niutao); Harry Nitz (Vaitupu); John (also known as Jack) O'Brien (Funafuti); Alfred Restieaux and Fenisot (Nukufetau); and Martin Kleis (Nui). This was the time at which the greatest number of palagi traders lived on the atolls, acting as agents for the trading companies.

In the later 1890s and into first decade of the 20th century, structural changes occurred in the operation of the Pacific trading companies, with the trading companies moving from a practice of having traders resident on each island to trade with the islanders to a business operation where the supercargo (the cargo manager of a trading ship) would deal directly with the islanders when a ship would visit an island. From 1900 the numbers of palagi traders in Tuvalu declined, with the last of the palagi traders being Fred Whibley on Niutao and Alfred Restieaux on Nukufetau. However, by 1909 there were no resident palagi traders representing the trading companies, although both Fred Whibley and Alfred Restieaux remained in the islands until their deaths.

Scientific expeditions & travellers
The United States Exploring Expedition under Charles Wilkes visited Funafuti, Nukufetau and Vaitupu in 1841. During the visit of the expedition to Tuvalu Alfred Thomas Agate, engraver and illustrator, recorded the dress and tattoo patterns of men of Nukufetau.

In 1890 Robert Louis Stevenson, his wife Fanny Vandegrift Stevenson, and her son Lloyd Osbourne sailed on the Janet Nicoll, a trading steamer owned by Henderson and Macfarlane of Auckland, New Zealand, which operated between Sydney, Auckland and into the central Pacific. The Janet Nicoll visited Tuvalu; while Fanny records that they made landfall at Funafuti and Niutao, Jane Resture suggests that it was more likely that they visited Nukufetau rather than Funafuti. An account of the voyage was written by Fanny Vandegrift Stevenson and published under the title The Cruise of the Janet Nichol, together with photographs taken by Robert Louis Stevenson and Lloyd Osbourne.

In 1894 Count Rudolph Festetics de Tolna, his wife Eila (née Haggin) and her daughter Blanche Haggin visited Funafuti aboard the yacht Le Tolna. Le Tolna spent several days at Funafuti with the Count photographing men and woman on Funafuti.

The boreholes on Funafuti at the site now called David's Drill are the result of drilling conducted by the Royal Society of London for the purpose of investigating the formation of coral reefs and whether traces of shallow water organisms could be found at depth in the coral of Pacific atolls. This investigation followed the work on the structure and distribution of coral reefs conducted by Charles Darwin in the Pacific. Drilling occurred in 1896, 1897 and 1911. Professor Edgeworth David of the University of Sydney lead the expeditions in 1896 & 1897. Photographers on the expeditions recorded people, communities and scenes at Funafuti.

Harry Clifford Fassett, captain's clerk and photographer, recorded people, communities and scenes at Funafuti during a visit of USFC Albatross when the U.S. Fish Commission were investigating the formation of coral reefs on Pacific atolls in 1900.

The Pacific War & Operation Galvanic
During the Pacific War the United States Marine Corps landed on Funafuti on October 2, 1942. The Japanese had already occupied Tarawa and other islands in what is now Kiribati, A Naval Construction Battalion (Seabees) built compacted coral runways at Funafuti with satellites airfields on both Nanumea and Nukufetau. Building the runway at Funafuti involved the loss of land used for growing pulaka and taro with extensive excavation of coral from what are still known as the borrow pits. The runway continues in use today as Funafuti International Airport.

The Seabees also blasted an opening in the reef at Nanumea, which became known as the 'American Passage'.

While Funafuti suffered air attacks during 1943, casualties were limited, although on one occasion on 23 April 1943, 680 people took refuge in the concrete walled, pandanus-thatched church. Fortunately Corporal B. F. Ladd, an American soldier, persuaded them to get into dugouts, as a bomb struck the building shortly after.

USAAF B-24 Liberator bombers of the Seventh Air Force operated from Tuvalu. The atolls of Tuvalu acted as a staging post during the preparation for the Battle of Tarawa and the Battle of Makin that commenced on 20 November 1943, which was the implementation of operation 'Galvanic'.

Recent history
Tuvalu became fully independent in 1978 and in 1979 signed a treaty of friendship with the United States, which recognized Tuvalu's possession of four small islands formerly claimed by the United States.

Tuvalu became the 189th member of the United Nations in September 2000. At present, the country's Permanent Representative to the United Nations is Ambassador Afelee F. Pita.

Tuvalu, one of the world's smallest countries, has indicated that its priority within the United Nations is to emphasise "climate change and the unique vulnerabilities of Tuvalu to its adverse impacts". Other priorities are obtaining "additional development assistance from potential donor countries", widening the scope of Tuvalu's bilateral diplomatic relations, and, more generally, expressing "Tuvalu's interests and concerns". The issue of climate change has featured prominently in Tuvalu's interventions.

In 2002, Governor-General Tomasi Puapua concluded his address to the United Nations General Assembly by saying:

"Finally, Mr. President, efforts to ensure sustainable development, peace, security and longterm livelihood for the world will have no meaning to us in Tuvalu in the absence of serious actions to address the adverse and devastating effects of global warming. At no more than three meters above sea level, Tuvalu is particularly exposed to these effects. Indeed our people are already migrating to escape, and are already suffering from the consequences of what world authorities on climate change have consistently been warning us. Only two weeks ago, a period when the weather was normal and calm and at low tide, unusually big waves suddenly crashed ashore and flooded most part of the capital island.

In the event that the situation is not reversed, where does the international community think the Tuvalu people are to hide from the onslaught of sea level rise? Taking us as environmental refugees, is not what Tuvalu is after in the long run. We want the islands of Tuvalu and our nation to remain permanently and not be submerged as a result of greed and uncontrolled consumption of industrialized countries. We want our children to grow up the way my wife and I did in our own islands and in our own culture.

We once again appeal to the industrialized countries, particularly those who have not done so, to urgently ratify and fully implement the Kyoto Protocol, and to provide concrete support in all our adaptation efforts to cope with the effects of climate change and sea level rise. Tuvalu, having little or nothing to do with the causes, cannot be left on its own to pay the price. We must work together. May God Bless you all. May God Bless the United Nations."

Addressing the Special Session of the Security Council on Energy, Climate and Security in April 2007, Ambassador Pita stated:

"We face many threats associated with climate change. Ocean warming is changing the very nature of our island nation. Slowly our coral reefs are dying through coral bleaching, we are witnessing changes to fish stocks, and we face the increasing threat of more severe cyclones. With the highest point of four metres above sea level, the threat of severe cyclones is extremely disturbing, and severe water shortages will further threaten the livelihoods of people in many islands. Madam President, our livelihood is already threatened by sea level rise, and the implications for our long term security are very disturbing. Many have spoken about the possibility of migrating from our homeland. If this becomes a reality, then we are faced with an unprecedented threat to our nationhood. This would be an infringement on our fundamental rights to nationality and statehood as constituted under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international conventions."

Addressing the United Nations General Assembly in September 2008, Prime Minister Apisai Ielemia stated:

"Climate change is, without doubt, the most serious threat to the global security and survival of mankind. It is an issue of enormous concern to a highly vulnerable small island State like Tuvalu. Here in this Great House, we now know both the science and economics of climate change. We also know the cause of climate change, and that human actions by ALL countries are urgently needed to address it. The central message of both the IPCC reports and the Sir Nicholas Stern reports to us, world leaders, is crystal clear: unless urgent actions are done to curb greenhoses gasses emissions by shifting to a new global energy mix based on renewable energy sources, and unless timely adaptation is done, the adverse impact of climate change on all communities, will be catastrophic.