The earliest settlers of the island of Sakhalin came from the Amur region in two waves, around 2000 B.C. and 1000 B.C. A Neolithic people, they are thought to have been, in part, the ancestors of the Nivkh. Today's Nivkh, therefore, are an amalgam of earlier and later populations. Another early group on Sakhalin were the Ainu, who came from present-day Japan, in the south. (The Nivkh names for the Ainu are "Kui" and "Khughi"; the Chinese name of the island of Sakhalin is "Ku-ye-dao," where dao means "island.") Beginning with the thirteenth century, Chinese historical records mention tribes by the name of "Ji-li-mi" and "Qi-li-mi." These references are probably to the ancestors of the Nivkh or their early neighbors. The earliest mentions of these people in Russian sources are in travel accounts from the seventeenth century.
The Nivkh were fairly well studied by the middle of the nineteenth century: there had been a large expedition to the area (under Leopold von Schrenck) from 1854 to 1856. This was followed by economic exploitation, the arrival of political exiles, and the visit of the famous author Anton Chekhov, who also mentions the Nivkh (Gilyak) in his book on Sakhalin (The Island, first published in 1893-1894). On the mainland, the closest neighbors of the Nivkh were various South Tungusic tribes; on Sakhalin they were in close touch with the Orok (also a South Tungusic tribe) and with the Ainu. Until 1917 only weak attempts were made to integrate the Nivkh into the imperial Russian economic and social structure. From 1905 to 1945 Japan owned the southern half (south of 50°) of Sakhalin. Japan also controlled portions of the economy in northern Sakhalin from 1918 until about 1940. In 1945, when the USSR occupied the entire island, there were about 100 Nivkh on the Japanese (southern) half of the island.
An alphabet for the Nivkh language, based on the Latin script, was created in 1931; books (mostly primers) were published in 1932; campaigns to encourage hygiene, collectivization, and general education were launched at about the same time. An alphabet based on the Cyrillic script replaced the one based on Latin in 1940. By 1990 there were two orthographies, to accommodate the two dialects. At present the Nivkh are integrated into the Russian economy and culture, with the degree of acculturation high and increasing; yet many Nivkh continue to engage in traditional occupations (seal hunting, fishing) and are aware of their heritage, which they are eager to perpetuate.