In the centuries before the European discovery of Honduras, the region was occupied by the Mayas, whose civilization arose around the fourth century A.D. Several Indian tribes, with a total population of about 500,000, were inhabiting Honduras when Christopher Columbus reached Honduras in 1502 on his fourth voyage. Spain's conquest of the Indians and colonization of the land soon followed. In 1539 the country was made a province of the captaincy general of Guatemala, and almost 300 years of Spanish rule began.

Along with the other provinces of Central America, Honduras declared its independence from Spain in 1821 and soon after joined them in forming the United Provinces of Central America. The confederation broke up during 1838–39 and Honduras became an independent country. The idea of federation remained popular with many Central American leaders, but attempts by Honduras, El Salvador, and Nicaragua in the 1840's and 1850's to form a new confederation failed.

As an independent republic, Honduras has seen civil strife, revolt, and dictatorial rule. From 1855 to 1932, the country had 67 different heads of state. There were armed conflicts with neighboring countries, usually over territorial claims, and military intervention by the United States (in 1907, 1912, and 1924–25). Boundary disputes were settled with Guatemala in 1933, Nicaragua in 1960, and El Salvador in 1970.

The military came to power in a bloodless coup in 1972. In 1980 a new constitutional assembly was elected and a new constitution drafted. In 1981 civilian rule was restored when Roberto Suazo of the center-right Liberal party was elected president. The military, however, continued to play an important role. The Liberal party remained in power in the 1980's. After a brief period under the National party in the early 1990's, Carlos Roberto Reina of the Liberal party was elected president in 1993. He pledged to reduce the military's role in civilian affairs. In 199S the country was devastated by Hurricane Mitch, which killed more than 5,000 Hondurans.