Archaeological evidence indicates that human beings began to inhabit the general area well over 40,000 years ago. The Malays evolved into the dominant race by the first millennium AD, and established small states that were influenced greatly by Indian culture.
As many as 30 kingdoms reigned throughout the 2nd and 3rd centuries, including the ancient Langkasuka empire - which is among the earliest known kingdoms of Malaysia.
The maritime Srivijaya Empire controlled a significant amount of the Malay peninsula between the late 7th and 13th centuries, revolutionizing trade and becoming the main power within the archipelago.
After the collapse of the Srivijayas, Islam began to gradually spread through the region, and sultanates began to evolve. The Malacca Sultanate prospered as the first independent state, and became a vital commercial center.
In 1511, Portugal conquered the Sultanate of Malacca, making it the first European power to gain access to the Southeast Asian trade route.
The Netherlands and Spain superseded Portugal's stronghold in the 17th century with the Dutch taking over Malacca.
However, it was the British who recognized the strategic position of the Malay states and their abundance of natural resources, and they ultimately colonized and controlled the region for over 150 years beginning in the mid-1800s.
Originally, a policy of non-intervention was upheld by the British, but the commercial importance of mining eventually led to conflict between the aristocracy. The subsequent damage to the economy and destabilization pushed Britain to intervene.