The earliest signs of human habitation in Zambia are stone tools estimated to be about 55,000 years old. Prehistoric hunters, probably Bushmen, roamed the area during the Stone Age. Bantu-speaking blacks with a knowledge of ironworking had spread throughout eastern and southern Africa by about 1000 A.D. Of the peoples now inhabiting Zambia, the Tonga, Bemba, Chewa, and Lozi (the largest groups) and most of the others had established themselves in the region by the 18th century.

There had been some contact between the indigenous groups and Arab, East Indian, and Portuguese traders for several centuries, and slavers had raided the area periodically, but it was not until the mid-19th century that extensive exploration of the region began. David Livingstone, a British missionary, first visited what is now Zambia in 1851 during his exploration of Africa's interior. Accounts of his travels led to the establishment of Christian missions along the Zambezi River and Lake Tanganyika.

The territory that now makes up Zambia became part of Great Britain's sphere of influence in southern Africa during the 1890's. Known as Northern Rhodesia, it was under the jurisdiction of Cecil Rhodes's British South Africa Company until the company's governing authority was ended in 1923. The territory then became a British protectorate. European colonists were slow in coming until extensive copper deposits were discovered near Ndola in the 1920's.

In 1953, Northern Rhodesia, together with Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and Nyasaland (now Malawi), formed the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland, although most of the protectorate's black Africans opposed the union because it was dominated by whites. After the federation was dissolved in 1963, Northern Rhodesia was granted independence (October 24, 1964) and was renamed Zambia. Kenneth Kaunda, an African nationalist, was elected president. Within a decade, he had eliminated all political opposition and imposed a dictatorship.

Early in his presidency, Kaunda began a program of reducing trade with Rhodesia (a white-ruled nation) and of building roads and railways to black-ruled nations. (A railway giving Zambia access to Tanzania's ports was completed in 1975.) Also, Kaunda nationalized many privately owned businesses, including, in 1969, the copper mining companies. In the 1970's a worldwide drop in copper prices severely depressed Zambia's economy. During the 1980's, Zambian civilians were attacked by rebels from Angola and Mozambique because of Kaunda's support for those countries' governments.

In July, 1991, yielding to popular pressure, Kaunda agreed to adopt a new democratic constitution and to hold elections. In September, he lost the presidency to Frederick Chiluba, and his party lost control of the National Assembly. Chiluba immediately began to restructure Zambia's civil service administration in an attempt to eliminate widespread charges of corruption and drug-trafficking. Kaunda, however, remained politically active within his party and was arrested several times during the early 1990's on charges of inciting unrest. Kaunda's party boycotted the 1996 elections, and Chiluba was reelected. By the late 1990's, more than 30,000 people had fled fighting in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to take refuge in Zambia.

Zambia legalized opposition political parties in 1990. In the multiparty elections of 1991, Frederick Chiluba was elected president. He defeated Kaunda in the election. Chiluba was reelected in 1996. In 2001, Levy Mwanawasa was elected president. Also in the early 21st century, a severe drought led to widespread food shortages in Zambia. In 2006, Mwanawasa was reelected president.