Archaeological evidence, in particular the Wassu Stone Circle, show that people have been living in the region since 500 CE. Around 1200 saw the first migration of the Fula to the region -- they now account for about 20% of Gambia's population.
Between 1400 and 1600 the region fell under the Mali Empire, the first of the great African empires in West Africa to reach the Atlantic coast. The Malinke (Mandinka) ruled, a subset of the Mandé peoples who are spread across West Africa, and now the dominant ethnic group in The Gambia.
Towards the end of the 16th century, the region came under the control of the Songhai Empire, but incursions by forces from Morocco, and then the arrival of Portuguese traders quickened its collapse.
Portuguese, British and French all tried to claim the region as part of their colonial empire, Britain gained the narrow tongue of land which was sandwiched within French territory. During the 17th and 18th century the region was a major source of slaves for the trans-Atlantic trade.
When Britain abolished the slave trade in 1807 it met with resistance in The Gambia -- a military post was set up at Bathurst (now Banjul) to aid anti-slavery measures. (Slavery in The Gambia was only abolished in 1906.)
In 1889 the boundary between The Gambia and Senegal was agreed by Britain and France. Five years later, with increasing colonial activity inland, it became a British protectorate.
Independence was granted on 18 February 1965, with Queen Elizabeth II as head of state and Dawda Kairaba Jawara as prime minister. A republic was declared five years later, on 24 April 1970, with Jawara becoming president.
A military coup in 1994 deposed Jawara, who had been in power for 32 years (since becoming prime minister in 1962). Lieut. Yahya Jammeh took power -- an autocratic ruler who has since severely restricted civil liberties.