Historians believe that the Twa (or Abatwa) were the original inhabitants of Burundi. Hutus (Abahutus) arrived some time before the 11th century A.D., probably from the Congo Basin. The Hutus greatly outnumbered the Twa and were able to impose their language, but not their customs and way of life, on them. The Hutus were ruled by kings, each of whom reigned over a limited area.

 During the 15th century, Tutsis (Abatutsis) migrated into the area, probably from the north. Although less numerous than the Hutus, the Tutsis were skilled warriors who were able to establish themselves as the ruling class. For the next 400 years, a system known as ubugabire prevailed. The mwami (king) ruled the country with the help of the abaganwa (aristocratic class). Within the kingdom, each intara (region) was ruled by an umutware (chief). Regions were further subdivided into umusozi (communities of people living on a single hill). During this period, most Hutus became economically dependent upon Tutsis. Intermarriage between the two groups was quite common.

In the mid-1850s, European explorers arrived in Burundi, followed by Roman Catholic missionaries. In 1890, Burundi (then called Urundi) and its neighbour Rwanda (then called Ruanda) became part of German East Africa. During the First World War (1914-18), Belgians occupied the area, and, at the end of the war, the League of Nations gave Belgium control of Ruanda-Urundi. 

The Belgians reinforced the inequality between the Tutsis and the Hutus. They ruled indirectly through the Tutsis, who maintained a higher status than the Hutus. Although missionaries converted both Hutus and Tutsis to Christianity, Tutsis had more opportunities to take advantage of the European education offered by missionaries. It was only in about 1955 that the Belgians began to phase out the ubugabire system.

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The Twa people still live in the forests and mountains, hunting, fishing and gathering fruit, much as their ancestors did a thousand years ago. They are known for their fine pottery, which they sell or exchange for food and other goods.
After the Second World War, Hutus began to protest the inequalities in Rwanda and Burundi. In 1959, the Hutus in Rwanda attacked the Tutsis and thousands of Rwandan Tutsis fled into Burundi. In 1962, Burundi became an independent constitutional monarchy under King Mwambutsa IV. Tutsis, fearing that Hutus would attack as they had in Rwanda, terrorized the Hutus, many of whom fled to Rwanda. The country fell into political chaos. The king was deposed and Burundi became a republic.

 Pierre Buyoya, a Tutsi, came to power in a 1987 coup and tried to bring about democratic reforms. In 1993, Melchior Ndadaye, a Hutu, became the first democratically elected president, replacing Buyoya. When he was assassinated a few months after his election, civil war broke out. Buyoya seized power again in 1996 and suspended the constitution. 

Since independence, hundreds of thousands of Hutus and Tutsis have been killed in continuing violence. Other African nations have held talks with different factions in attempts to bring stability and peace to the country. In August 2000, a peace accord was signed by most Burundian factions.