In the face of environmental uncertainty due to anthropogenic climate change, islands are at the front lines of global change, threatened by sea level rise, habitat alteration, extinctions and declining biodiversity. Islands also stand at the forefront of scientific study for understanding the deep history of human ecodynamics and to build sustainable future systems. We summarize the long history of human interactions with Polynesian, Mediterranean, Californian and Caribbean island ecosystems, documenting the effects of various waves of human settlement and socioeconomic systems, from hunter–gatherer–fishers, to agriculturalists, to globalized colonial interests. We identify degradation of island environments resulting from human activities, as well as cases of human management of resources to enhance productivity and create more sustainable systems. These case studies suggest that within a general global pattern of progressive island degradation, there was no single trajectory of human impact, but rather complex effects based on variable island physiographies, human subsistence strategies, population densities, technologies, sociopolitical organization and decision-making.