ABSTRACT This paper focuses on nature—society interactions in the Pacific Islands before European contact about 200 years ago. It argues that the character of early interactions was decided by both the nature of a particular island environment and the intentions of the human settlers. Throughout the pre-European contact human history of the Pacific Islands, environmental changes of extraneous cause have been the main control of societal and cultural change. This environmental determinist view is defended using many examples. The contrary (and more popular) cultural determinist view of societal change in the Pacific Islands is shown to be based on largely spurious data and argument. A key example discussed is the ‘AD 1300 Event’, a time of rapid temperature and sea-level fall which had severe, abrupt and enduring effects on Pacific Island societies. It is important to acknowledge the role of environmental change in cultural transformation in this region.