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Jeju is a volcanic field that has erupted from around 1·8 Myr to c. 1 kyr ago. Activity began with dispersed, basaltic, monogenetic, phreatomagmatic eruptions. Continuing monogenetic volcanism was later joined by more voluminous lava effusion events building a central composite shield. Samples from older (>0·7 Ma) and younger (<0·2 Ma) monogenetic centres were analysed for their whole-rock major element, trace element and Sr–Nd–Pb isotopic compositions. Pyroclastic products from the monogenetic centres are dominantly alkali basalt to trachybasalt, whereas the more voluminous lava flows and domes of the central edifice consist of subalkali basalt and alkali basalt to trachyte. Lavas from the Early Pleistocene monogenetic centres are depleted in MgO, Cr and Ni, reflecting considerable olivine fractionation. By contrast, Late Pleistocene–Holocene monogenetic centre magmas fractionated clinopyroxene + olivine at deeper levels. Isotopic compositions show little variation across the suite; however, the Late Pleistocene–Holocene monogenetic centres have generally lower 87Sr/86Sr and 208Pb/204Pb and higher 143Nd/144Nd than the older centres and subalkali lavas. Major and trace element and isotope data suggest a common, shallower source for the high-Al alkali and subalkali lavas, in contrast to a deeper source for the low-Al alkali magmas. We propose that mantle melting was initiated under partially hydrous conditions at a pressure of near 2·5 GPa, followed by drier conditions and extension of the melting zone to 3–3·5 GPa, with a concomitant increase in the volume of melt derived from the shallower part of the system to produce subalkaline magmas. Increasing melt production at shallow depths may be related to accelerated heat transfer resulting from deepening of the melting zone, or increased mantle upwelling. Mantle lenses were uplifted, probably lubricated by shear zones created during the opening of the Sea of Japan c. 15 Myr ago, and reactivated during rotation of the Philippine Sea plate direction of subduction at around 2 Ma. This is the first hypothesized link between subduction processes and intraplate volcanism at Jeju.