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Archaeological excavations in the village of Hihifo, in southern Pangai, revealed a settlement dating back over 3000 years when Lapita pottery (an early form of distinctive Polynesian ware, named after the site in New Caledonia where it was first found) carbon dated to this period was unearthed. Lifuka's other archaeological sights include the Velata Mound Fortress (probably built in the 15th century AD), several large burial mounds, and an ancient stone quarry at Holopeka Beach.

The first European to visit the Ha'apai Group was Dutchman Abel Tasman, who stopped at Nomuka in 1643 for fresh water. Nomuka's sweet water springs were to be the focus of many visits to the group throughout the years of European Pacific exploration.

Subsequently, Ha'apai became the scene of several notable events in Tongan history. On Lifuka in 1777, Captain James Cook and his men narrowly escaped unwittingly becoming the main course at a cannibalistic feast they had been invited to attend, a feast which resulted in Cook's christening Tonga the 'Friendly Islands'. The famous mutiny on the Bounty occurred in Ha'apai in 1789.

Still later, in 1806, the British privateer Port-au-Prince was ransacked off Lifuka's north coast; survivor Will Mariner's tale of his years spent in Tonga has become the classic account of pre-Christian life on the islands.

Ha'apai was the first island group in the Tongan archipelago to convert to Christianity, due to the efforts of convert Taufa'ahau, who was baptised George in 1831 and became the first king of the House of Tupou. He set the stage for a united Tonga and established the royal line that remains in power to this day.