Little is known of the area's early history, but archeologists believe the region has been inhabited for at least 100,000 years. About 1000 A.D., a Bantu group called the Shona arrived and established a loose form of feudalism in part of the region. Their political center was an elaborate stone-built city called Zimbabwe. A large Shona confederation emerged in the mid-1400's; it included all of present-day Zimbabwe and Mozambique. The Portuguese made contact with this empire in the 1500's.

The Shona confederation gradually disintegrated, and Zimbabwe was abandoned. During the 1830's, another Bantu people, the Ndebele, conquered and settled the western half of the region and began exacting tribute from the Shona of the eastern half.

In 1888 Cecil Rhodes, a British merchant, obtained mineral rights from the Ndebele. Rhodes used the concession as an opening for his company, the British South Africa Company, to colonize and administer the area, which then was named Southern Rhodesia. In 1923 Southern Rhodesia became a self-governing British colony. It was part of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland from 1953 to 1963.

In 1964 Southern Rhodesia adopted the name Rhodesia and requested independence. Britain agreed on condition that the black majority be guaranteed future control. The government, headed by Ian Smith, refused, and Rhodesia declared itself independent in 1965. In 1966 the United Nations imposed economic sanctions against the country.

Bands of black Rhodesians began a terrorist campaign in 1967 that broke out into widespread guerrilla warfare in 1972. The economy declined severely, and tourism and immigration to Rhodesia virtually ceased. In 1978 the Smith government agreed to a black role in the government. In 1979 elections, a black prime minister was chosen. The leaders of the guerrilla movement—Robert Mugabe of the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) and Joshua Nkomo of the Zimbabwe African Peoples Union (ZAPU)—ignored the election and continued the war.

In late 1979, the British obtained approval from all political factions in Rhodesia to hold elections for a new government—one that would involve ZANU and ZAPU as well as the white and black supporters of the black majority government elected in 1979. The country then reverted to British colonial status until elections were held in 1980 and independent Zimbabwe was proclaimed. Mugabe was elected prime minister.

A period of bitter antagonism followed between ZANU, which drew support mainly from the Shona, and ZAPU, which drew support mainly from the Ndebele. In 1988, to end the conflict, Nkomo joined Mugabe's government as a cabinet member and merged ZAPU into ZANU. Mugabe took the position of president. He returned to office after popular elections in 1990. Mugabe's plans to seize white-owned property without compensation scared away foreign investors, and the country's unemployment rate reached about 50 per cent. Despite this bleak economic situation, he was reelected in 1996 and 2000. Meanwhile, in 1998, Zimbabwe sent troops to fight in the ongoing war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

In mid-2005, Mugabe began a campaign to "clean up" crime in Harare and other urban areas. Mugabe's government demolished slum dwellings, arrested thousands of people, and made hundreds of thousands of people homeless. Many people believed that Mugabe was trying to punish urban voters, most of whom were supporters of the opposition.

In March 2008, Zimbabwe held presidential and parliamentary elections. For the first time since 1980, ZANU did not win a majority of parliamentary seats. When the presidential election results were released, the leader of opposition party the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), Morgan Tsvangirai, had the most votes. However, they were not enough to win the election. A runoff election was held on June 27. However, Tsvangirai had withdrawn from the race on June 22, claiming that the election would not be fair due to voter intimidation by ZANU. Mugabe was elected president. In September, an agreement was signed by ZANU and MDC that created the post of prime minister, to be held by Tsvangirai. Tsvangirai took office in February 2009.