The region around Djibouti has been populated since the Neolithic period. Linguists believe that around this time period, the first Afroasiatic-speaking people migrated in the area from the family’s putative urheimat (“original homeland”) in the Nile Valley or the Near East. Others believe that the Afroasiatic language family arose in situ in the Horn, with people spreading from there.
At Asa Koma, an inland lake region on the Gobaad Plain, pottery dating back to the mid-second millennium has been discovered. The pottery from the site features punctate and incision geometric patterns that are comparable to the Sabir culture phase 1 ceramics from Ma’layba in Southern Arabia. Long-horned humpless cow bones were also found at Asa Koma, indicating that domesticated cattle existed about 3,500 years ago. At Dorra and Balho, there is additional rock art depicting antelopes and a giraffe.
A number of anthropomorphic and phallic stelae may also be found between Djibouti City and Loyada. The constructions are linked to rectangular tombs bordered by vertical slabs, which have also been discovered in central Ethiopia. The stelae in Djibouti-Loyada are of unknown antiquity, and some of them have a T-shaped sign.
Djibouti is thought to be the most probable site of the region known to the Ancient Egyptians as Punt (or Ta Netjeru, meaning “God’s Land”), along with northern Somalia, Eritrea, and Sudan’s Red Sea coast. The Land of Punt was originally mentioned in the 25th century BC. The Puntites were a people that had strong ties to Ancient Egypt under the reigns of Pharaoh Sahure of the Fifth Dynasty and Queen Hatshepsut of the Eighteenth Dynasty. King Parahu and Queen Ati governed the Land of Punt during the period, according to temple paintings at Deir el-Bahari.
The Somali and Afar ethnic groups in the area were among the first people on the continent to adopt Islam after trading with the neighboring Arabian Peninsula for more than 1,000 years.
In the Horn of Africa, the Ifat Sultanate was a medieval country. The Walashma dynasty founded it in 1285, and it was headquartered at Zeila. Ifat began operations in Djibouti and northern Somalia, then moved south to the Ahmar Mountains. In 1285, its Sultan Umar Walashma (or, according to another account, his son Ali) captured the Sultanate of Shewa. Sultan Umar’s military expedition, according to Taddesse Tamrat, was an attempt to unify Muslim holdings in the Horn, similar to Emperor Yekuno Amlak’s endeavor to unite Christian kingdoms in the highlands at the same time. These two states eventually clashed over Shewa and other southern regions. A long battle erupted, although the Muslim sultanates of the period were not well-coordinated. In 1332, Emperor Amda Seyon I of Ethiopia destroyed Ifat, and he retreated from Shewa.
The area north of the Gulf of Tadjoura was known as Obock from 1862 to 1894, and it was governed by Somali and Afar Sultans, local rulers with whom France negotiated several treaties between 1883 and 1887 to establish a presence in the region. Léonce Lagarde established a permanent French government in Djibouti in 1894, renaming the territory French Somaliland. It lasted from 1896 until 1967, when the Territoire Français des Afars et des Issas (TFAI) was established (“French Territory of the Afars and the Issas”).
Djibouti conducted a referendum in 1958, on the eve of neighboring Somalia’s independence in 1960, to determine whether to join the Somali Republic or stay with France. The referendum resulted in a yes vote from the large Afar ethnic community as well as resident Europeans, indicating that the country’s relationship with France should be maintained. Allegations of massive vote manipulation were also made. The bulk of those who voted no were Somalis who supported Mahmoud Harbi, the Vice President of the Government Council, in his proposal for an unified Somalia. Harbi died two years later in an aircraft accident.
A second referendum was conducted in 1967 to decide the future of the area. The preliminary findings indicated that the connection with France should be maintained, although with a looser grip. The vote was also split along ethnic lines, with the majority of resident Somalis voting for independence with the aim of ultimate unification with Somalia, while the Afars opted to stay with France. The referendum was once again plagued by allegations of vote manipulation by the French government. The former Côte française des Somalis (French Somaliland) was renamed Territoire français des Afars et des Issas shortly after the vote.
A third referendum was held in 1977. Disengagement from France was approved by a landslide 98.8% of the voters, formally marking Djibouti’s independence. Hassan Gouled Aptidon, a Somali politician who advocated for a yes vote in the 1958 referendum, became the country’s first president (1977–1999).
Djibouti joined the Organization of African Unity (now the African Union), the Arab League, and the United Nations within its first year. The fledgling country was also a founding member of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, a regional development organization, in 1986.
Tensions over government representation between Djibouti’s governing People’s Rally for Progress (PRP) and the opposition Front for the Restoration of Unity and Democracy (FRUD) led to violent warfare in the early 1990s. In 2000, the stalemate was broken by a power-sharing deal.