The Tam Pa Ling Cave in the Annamite Mountains of northern Laos has yielded an ancient human cranium that is at least 46,000 years old, making it Southeast Asia’s earliest modern human fossil. Stone artefacts, particularly Hoabinhian kinds, have been discovered in northern Laos at Late Pleistocene sites. Agriculturist civilization emerged around the 4th millennium BC, according to archeological data. Bronze items first emerged about 1500 BC, and iron implements were known as early as 700 BC, according to burial jars and other types of sepulchers. Contact between Chinese and Indian civilisations characterizes the protohistoric era. Tai-speaking tribes moved southwestward from Guangxi to the current regions of Laos and Thailand during the 8th and 10th centuries, according to linguistic and other historical data.
The kingdom of Lan Xang (Million Elephants) was established in the 14th century by a Lao ruler named Fa Ngum, who took over Vientiane with 10,000 Khmer soldiers. Ngum came from a long line of Lao rulers that began with Khoun Boulom. Lan Xang thrived when he declared Theravada Buddhism the national religion. The kingdom extended eastward to Champa and along the Annamite highlands in Vietnam within 20 years of its founding. In 1373, his ministers, unable to bear his brutality, exiled him to the modern-day Thai province of Nan, where he died. Oun Heuan, Fa Ngum’s oldest son, ascended to the throne as Samsenthai and ruled for 43 years. Lan Xang grew in importance as a trading center under his rule. Lan Xang was torn apart by fighting groups for the following 100 years after his death in 1421.
To prevent a Burmese invasion, Photisarath took the kingdom in 1520 and relocated the capital from Luang Prabang to Vientiane. After his father was assassinated in 1548, Setthathirat ascended to the throne and ordered the building of That Luang, which would become the country’s emblem. Setthathirat vanished in the mountains on his way back from a military mission in Cambodia, and Lan Xang’s health started to deteriorate quickly.
Lan Xang did not further extend its borders until 1637, when Sourigna Vongsa became the king. Laos’ golden era is frequently referred to as his reign. The kingdom was split into three principalities after he died, leaving Lan Xang without a successor. Burmese forces overran northern Laos and seized Luang Phrabang between 1763 and 1769, while Champasak ultimately fell under Siamese control.
The Siamese appointed Chao Anouvong as a vassal ruler of Vientiane. He pushed for a revival of Lao fine arts and literature, as well as better ties with Luang Phrabang. In 1826, he revolted against the Siamese under Vietnamese pressure. Vientiane was looted when the uprising collapsed. As a prisoner, Anouvong was transported to Bangkok, where he died.
A British observer characterized a Siamese military campaign in Laos in 1876 as “converted into slave-hunting expeditions on a huge scale.”
French Laos (1893–1953)
The Chinese Black Flag Army ravaged Luang Prabang in the late nineteenth century. King Oun Kham was saved by France, and Luang Phrabang was included to the Protectorate of French Indochina. The protectorate was expanded to include the Kingdom of Champasak and the region of Vientiane shortly after. Vientiane was re-established as the capital of a united Laos under King Sisavang Vong of Luang Phrabang.
Laos was never more than a buffer state for France between British-influenced Thailand and the more economically significant Annam and Tonkin provinces. The corvée was a system established by the French during their reign that required every male Lao to give 10 days of physical labor each year to the colonial administration. Tin, rubber, and coffee were all produced in Laos, although it never contributed for more than 1% of French Indochina’s exports. Around 600 French people resided in Laos by 1940.
Vichy France, fascist Thailand, Imperial Japan, Free France, and Chinese nationalist forces invaded Laos during World War II. A nationalist party proclaimed Laos independent again on March 9, 1945, with Luang Prabang as its capital, but two battalions of Japanese soldiers seized the city on April 7, 1945.  The Japanese tried to compel Sisavang Vong (the King of Luang Phrabang) to proclaim Laotian independence, but on April 8, he merely announced the end of Laos’ French colonial status. The King then dispatched Prince Kindavong to represent Laos to the Allies and Prince Sisavang to represent the Japanese in secret. Some Lao nationalists (including Prince Phetsarath) claimed Laotian independence when Japan surrendered, but by early 1946, French forces had reoccupied the country and granted Laos limited autonomy.
During the First Indochina War, the Pathet Laoresistance was established by the Indochinese Communist Party. With the help of the Vietnamese independence movement, the Pathet Lao launched a battle against the French colonial troops (the Viet Minh). Laos was given semi-autonomy as a “associated state” under the French Union in 1950. France remained in de facto power until Laos achieved complete independence as a constitutional monarchy on October 22, 1953.
Independence and Communist Rule (1953–present)
The First Indochina War raged throughout French Indochina, culminating in French defeat and the signing of a peace treaty with Laos at the 1954 Geneva Conference. In 1955, as part of the US containment strategy, the US Department of Defense established a separate Programs Evaluation Office to replace French assistance for the Royal Lao Army against the communist Pathet Lao.
Fighting broke out in 1960 in the Kingdom of Laos, during a series of rebellions, between the Royal Lao Army and the communist Pathet Lao guerillas supported by North Vietnam and the Soviet Union. In 1962, Prince Souvanna Phouma established a second Provisional Government of National Unity, but it was ineffective, and the situation gradually worsened into a large-scale civil war between the Royal Laotian government and the Pathet Lao. The NVA and Vietcong supported the Pathet Lao militarily.
Parts of Laos were invaded and controlled by North Vietnam for use as a supply route in its fight against the South, making Laos an important component of the Vietnam War. As a result, the US launched a bombing campaign against North Vietnamese strongholds, backed regular and irregular anticommunist troops in Laos, and backed South Vietnamese invasions into the country.
The North Vietnamese Army conducted a multi-division assault in 1968 to aid the Pathet Lao in their battle against the Royal Lao Army. The army was largely demobilized as a consequence of the assault, leaving the fight to ethnic Hmong troops of the “US Secret Army,” supported by the US and Thailand and commanded by General Vang Pao.
The US launched a massive aircraft bombardment against the Pathet Lao and invading People’s Army of Vietnam troops to prevent the Royal Kingdom of Laos’ central government from collapsing and to prevent the use of the Ho Chi Minh Trail to strike US soldiers in the Republic of Vietnam. Between 1964 and 1973, the United States dropped two million tons of bombs on Laos, nearly equaling the 2.1 million tons dropped on Europe and Asia during World War II, making Laos the most heavily bombed country in history in terms of population; the New York Times noted that this was “nearly a ton for every person in Laos.” Approximately 80 million bombs failed to detonate and are now strewn throughout the nation, leaving large swaths of land unusable for agriculture and killing or maiming 50 Laotians each year. (Due to the devastating effect of cluster bombs during this conflict, Laos was a major supporter of the Convention on Cluster Munitions, and hosted the convention’s First Meeting of States Parties in November 2010.)
The Pathet Lao, with the help of the Vietnamese People’s Army and the Soviet Union, toppled the royalist Lao government in 1975, compelling King Savang Vatthana to resign on December 2, 1975. He was imprisoned for the rest of his life. During the Civil War, between 20,000 and 70,000 Laotians perished.
After seizing power, the Pathet Lao administration, led by Kaysone Phomvihane, renamed the nation the Lao People’s Democratic Republic and signed accords granting Vietnam the ability to station military troops and select advisors to help supervise the country on December 2, 1975. In 1979, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam asked that Laos cut ties with the People’s Republic of China, resulting in economic isolation for China, the United States, and other nations.
The post-Vietnam War occupation of Laos continued throughout the 1970s and 1980s, in addition to the North Vietnamese invasion by the Soviet-backed Vietnam People’s Army.
In important regions of Laos, notably Saysaboune Closed Military Zone, Xaisamboune Closed Military Zone in Vientiane Province, and Xieng Khouang Province, the struggle between Hmong rebels and the Vietnam People’s Army of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam (SRV) and the SRV-backed Pathet Lao persisted. Between 1975 and 1996, the United States resettled about 250,000 Lao refugees, including 130,000 Hmong.