The indigenous peoples in Congo were forest dwellers. Their descendants, primarily members of the Efe and Mbuti tribes, still live as hunters and gatherers in the northern Ituri forest. Late in the first millennium A.D., Bantu-speaking peoples established themselves throughout Central Africa. Their culture was based on ironworking and agriculture, and they largely displaced the indigenous peoples. 

By the 15th century, several kingdoms had developed in the area, including Kongo, Kuba, Luba and Lunda. When the Portuguese explorer Diogo Cam reached the mouth of the Congo River in 1482, he discovered that the coastal kingdoms were capturing people from nearby areas and sending them to work as slaves in Saudi Arabia. Over the next few centuries, Portuguese and French traders enslaved millions of Africans, and sent them to work on plantations in North and South America. The slave trade was abolished in 1885.

In 1878, King Leopold II of Belgium hired Anglo-American explorer Henry Morton Stanley to establish outposts along the Congo River. Leopold persuaded other European rulers to recognize Congo as his personal territory, which he named the Congo Free State.

 During Leopold's reign, the Congolese were brutally treated. They were forced to build a railroad and collect ivory and rubber. As many as 10 million Congolese died between 1880 and 1910. When news of the atrocities became public in 1908, the Belgian government took control of the colony and renamed it the Belgian Congo. Although the Belgian government improved working conditions slightly, it too was a harsh ruler and continued to extract natural resources. For years, the Congolese struggled to achieve independence.

  Did you know?
Scottish missionary and explorer David Livingstone, searching for the source of the Nile in 1866-71, discovered instead the source of the Congo River.
On June 30, 1960, the country became independent, but a few days later, civil war broke out between hostile factions. The provinces of Katanga (now Shaba Region) and Kasai seceded from the new nation. President Joseph Kasavubu dismissed Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba. Lumumba was later assassinated. His supporters established a rival government. With help from the United Nations, Kasavubu's government tried to restore order. Katanga and Kasai eventually rejoined the country in 1963.

 The Congolese army took control of the government in 1965, and General Joseph Desiré Mobutu became president. Most of Congo's income from mineral exports went into Mobutu's personal accounts. The security forces were paid and equipped, but the rest of the country deteriorated. The country was renamed Zaire in 1971. 

In the 1980s, economic problems and the lack of political freedom led to fighting between government troops and a rebel coalition in southeastern Zaire. After several rebel victories, Mobutu left the country in May 1997, and the rebels entered Kinshasa. Rebel leader Laurent Kabila became president and formed a transitional government. He renamed the country the Democratic Republic of Congo. The government promised to call elections, but fighting and disputes continue.
  Did you know?
More people were taken into slavery from the part of Africa now occupied by the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Republic of Congo and Angola than from any other area of the continent. Over three centuries, more than 13.5 million men, women and children were enslaved.