This part of Africa has long been inhabited. The jaw bone from one of man’s earliest ancestors was found in the Otavi mountains of Namibia.
Nomadic peoples wandered widely across the region to hunt and gather food. They became known as the San (or ‘Bushmen’).
Over the last two millennia, the San were forced into desert regions as other peoples began settling in the area. Groups such as the Nama, Damara, Herero, Ovambo and Kavango moved onto land where livestock-rearing or farming were viable.
Some groups, such as the Nama and Damara, speak a Khoisan language similar to the San. Khoisan languages are known for their clicking sounds. Other groups in Namibia are Bantu speakers. Find out more in People and Culture.
The Europeans arrive
The first Portuguese stopped off along Namibia’s coastline in the 1480s. But because the region was so inhospitable, they showed little interest in settling (as they did in neighbouring Angola, for example).
It wasn’t until the middle of the 19th century that European explorers, traders and missionaries started to explore Namibia. The presence of German Rhenish missionaries at Windhoek made it an important trading centre.
Creation of a corridor
Britain gave up a narrow corridor of land to Germany allowing access to the Zambezi river. This became the Caprivi Strip.
Around this time, conflict arose between peoples in Namibia as new groups came into the region, many forced from their land in other parts of Africa by European settlers. The German missionaries helped broker treaties between the different groups and their allies. At the end of the 19th century, Germany claimed the region as ‘South West Africa’ to protect its citizens and traders.
German traders and adventurers bought up more and more land from groups such as the Herero and Nama. This began the process of impoverishing the local Namibian peoples.
South Africa’s rule and independence
During World War I, the territory was captured from Germany by South Africa. At the end of the war, South Africa was assigned to look after the region as a ‘trust territory’. Many Boers settled in the south and Namibian populations were confined to the north or ‘native areas’ of desert land.
What’s in a name?
The UN officially declared South Africa’s occupation illegal in 1968 and named the country Namibia.
After World War II, South Africa annexed the territory. It had become an important source of cheap labour, mining potential and land for farming. The United Nations (UN) challenged South Africa’s position.
After decades of opposition and fighting led by a freedom movement within Namibia, negotiations between the parties led to Namibia’s independence in 1990. Sam Nujoma became the first president.
Today, the country has a democratic multiparty constitution. The current president is Hifikepunye Pohamba, a founding member of the country’s independence movement.