The ancients called the little volcanic island off the coast of Palermo Ustica (fromUstum = burned). However for the Greeks the name was Osteodes = "ossuary or bone island" from the human remains found after Carthaginian mercenaries, mutinied there meeting their death by starvation and thirst. Mythology has a rather more romantic story: The bones were those of the unfortunate sailors who remained enchanted by the voices of sirens and ended up crashing against the rocks.


The first human settlement dates back to the Paleolithic era, important excavations have yielded an interesting early Christian village. Burials systems, tunnels, cisterns dug in the tuff and a multitude of archeological finds in various parts of the island and under water - a testimony of numerous shipwrecks that occurred in this sea - confirm that the place was inhabited by the ancient peoples of the Mediterranean. Ustica saw passing the Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians and Romans who left remains scattered everywhere. It later became the base for Saracen raids.


During the the time of Ferdinand IV, King of the Two Sicilies, after a Turkish incursion the Viceroy of Sicily, decided to erect a series of fortifications around the island that would allow the settlers to work quietly. The Bourbons built two watchtowers (now headquarters of the Archaeological Museum of the Marine Reserve one and another), and in 1759 an imperial decree of Ferdinand de Bourbon imposed a progressive colonization of the island by volunteers from Palermo and Trapani

The Bourbons also used the island as a prison for political prisoners, as did the Savoia and the fascists. In 1961 by popular demand confinement was abolished and replaced with tourism. In 1987 Ustica became the first marine reserve in Italy, in order to preserve the island's surrounding sea.