Only some 20 islands are populated year-round, namely Bubaque which is where the Bissagos administrative capital is situated and is the most populated island, Bolama, Carache, Caravela, Enu, Formosa, Galinhas, João Vieira, Maio, Meneque, Orango, Orangozinho, Ponta, Roxa, Rubanhe, Soga, Unhacomo, Uno, and Uracane.
There is a high diversity of ecosystems: mangroves with intertidal zones, palm forests, dry and semi-dry forests, secondary and degraded forests, coastal savanna, sand banks and aquatic zones. The archipelago was declared in 1996 a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve—Boloma Bissagos Biosphere Reserve, known for animals including marine turtles, hippopotamus and the southern islands are today a nature reserve.
The population is estimated at about 30,000 (2006) and the local ethnic group known as Bissago (Portuguese: Bijagó) predominates. It is a relatively youthful population due to high birth rates and low life expectancy even by African standards.
The economy is largely rural, with many families living from subsistence farming and fishing. There is some tourist activity, mostly boat charters from neighboring Senegal. Lack of infrastructure and communication links prevent the development of the islands' unique tourism potential.
Starting in the early 2000s, several the Bissagos islands began to be used as transit depots for narcotraffic, which is quickly changing the social and economic fabrics of the islands.
In pre-European colonial times, the islands were central to the trade along the coast of West Africa and they built up a powerful navy. In 1535, this enabled them to rout the Portuguese, who later built a fort on Bissao, which was abandoned in 1703. The islands were not formally annexed by Portugal until 1936.
The Bissagos were visited by Austrian anthropologist and photographer Hugo Bernatzik in 1930–1931, who documented daily life among the Bidyogo people.
Due to difficulties of communication with mainland Guinea-Bissau that persist to this day, the population has a considerable degree of autonomy and has shielded its ancestral culture from outside influence. Mostly Bidyogo (Bijago in Portuguese) is still spoken along with Portuguese and creole. Bijago culture tends to be matriarchal, with women managing the household, the economy, law, as well as initiating courtship.
Bissagos society is characted by age-grade progression for both men and women (separately). The grade-ascension ceremonies (generally known as "fanados") take place years apart and entail extensive preparation and ceremony. The Bissagos have been erroneously considered to belong to matriarchal societies but closer examination has revealed a fundamentally patriarchal society where women, in spite of their substantial participation in material production and important roles in social, political, and religious matter, remain essentially unequal to men. It is however true that it is the women who choose their husbands and terminate the matrimony; in Orango they make a single plate of food (often a traditional fish-eye platter) for the spouse-to-be, who agrees to the marriage by eating of the fish.
The Bissagos peoples produce many artifacts for daily use and ritual following a traditional iconography that is unique to their culture, but shows variations from island to island. Among the most striking Bidyogo art pieces are the portable ancestor shrines ("iran") and the zoomorphic masks representing cows ("vaca-bruta"), sharks, stingrays and, occasionally, other local animals. Traditionally-decorated artifacts are also produced for "fanado" coming-of-age ceremonies (wood masks, spears, shields, headgear, bracelets), daily activities (fishing, agriculture) and personal use (stools, basketry, foodware). Its unique aesthetics make Bidyogo art easily distinctive from other African tribal arts.