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Wallis and Futuna were populated when the great Lapita settlement wave moved across the Pacific between 1500 BC and 500 BC. Objects found on Futuna have been dated to 800 BC, although it's probable there are even older sites. Later Futuna came under the influence of Samoa while Wallis suffered repeated invasions from Tonga, starting around AD 1400. The ferocity of the Tongan invasions ensured their position in the island's oral histories and today Tongan forts are some of the only remaining archaeological sites.

The Dutch explorers Jacques Le Maire and Wilhelm Schouten chanced upon Futuna in 1616 and named the island Hoorn, after their home port (the same Hoorn after which Cape Horn at the southern tip of South America is named). The next visitor, the English navigator Samuel Wallis who had recently discovered Tahiti, arrived at Uvea in 1767. Again the island was renamed but Wallis' name, unlike Hoorn, has stuck.

In the first half of the 19th century the islands became popular stops for whaling ships, followed by traders, bĂȘche-de-mer gatherers and, inevitably, missionaries. The first Catholic Marist missionaries, including Pierre Bataillon on Wallis and Pierre Chanel on Futuna, arrived in 1837. In 1841 Chanel was murdered by King Niuluki, an action which was to make Pierre Chanel the Pacific's first saint. In the second half of the century France gradually began to assume control of the islands, officially taking control over the years 1886 to 1888.

Things remained quiet until WWII when Wallis and Futuna was the only French colony to side with the collaborationist Vichy government, despite pressure from New Caledonia. The arrival of war in the Pacific ended that phase and in May 1942 the 5000 Wallisians suddenly found 2000American forces coming ashore. Airstrips were built - the one at Hihifo is still in use today. At its peak there were 6000 Americans on Wallis and their presence deeply influenced traditional culture.

On 29 July 1961 Wallis and Futuna officially became a French Territoire d'Outre-Mer (overseas territory). These days, there appears to be little local sentiment in favour of independence from France.