Malta's Neolithic megalithic ‘temples’, unique in the Mediterranean, provide a striking challenge to the archaeological imagination. Most explanations have employed a simple functionalism: the temples resulted from Malta's insularity. Such explanations lack the theoretical grounding provided by studies of agency and meaning, and they do not sufficiently account for Malta's pattern of integration into and differentiation from a central Mediterranean regional culture. I argue that: (a) contextual evidence suggests that the temples created settings for rites emphasizing local origins and identity; (b) even in periods of greatest cultural difference, the Maltese had contacts with nearby societies, and Maltese travellers probably recognized cultural differences in important ritual practices; and (c) when ritual practitioners began reinterpreting a common heritage of meanings to create the temple rites, they also created a new island identity based on these rites. In effect, after two millennia of cultural similarity to their neighbours, the Neolithic Maltese created a cultural island, perhaps in reaction to changes in the constitution of society sweeping Europe in the fourth millennium BC. The result was an island of cultural difference similar in scale and, perhaps, origin to many other archaeologically unique settings such as Val Camonica, the Morbihan, Stonehenge, and Chaco Canyon.