Earliest signs of mankind was discovered in Huaphan and Luang Prabang provinces in the form of stone tools. Prehistoric man in the stages of hunter and gatherers roamed over Laos around 40,000 years ago. The mystical Plain of Jars are a testament to an agriculturist society which seemed to appear during the 4th millenia BC.
Between the fourth and eighth century communities along the Mekong river began to form into townships, called muang. King Fa Ngum (1353-73) was recognised to have unified Laos in 1353 establishing the capital at Luang Prabang and ruled a kingdom called Larn Xang (million elephants ) which covered much of what today is Thailand and Laos. He is also credited with the introduction of Theravada Buddhism and much of Khmer civilization into Laos. Further successors especially King Setthathirat in the 16th century helped establish Buddhism as the predominant religion of the country. The kingdom was further expanded by King Setthathirat who ruled from 1548-1571 who moved the capital to Vientiane and built That Luang Stupa, a venerated religious shrine and a temple to house the Phra Keo (the Emerald Buddha). Settathirat is revered as one of the great Lao kings because he protected the nation from foreign conquest. When he disappeared in 1574 on a military campaign, the kingdom rapidly declined and was subject to Burmese invasion. There was a quick and lackluster succession of kings after Settathirat.
In the 17 th century internal fightings for the throne took place leading to the breakup of Larn Xang into three kingdoms- Vientiane, Luang Prabang and Champassak. During the next two centuries, the kingdoms were overrun by the armies of neighbouring countires. Siam established supremacy over most of Laos whilst the Vietnamese were influencing the northwest region. In the 1820s, Vientiane’s King Anou rebelled against Siamese interference and attacked the Thais. The Thai response was to sack Vientiane in 1827, razing most of the city.
After French explorations in the late 19th century Siam was displaced by the French whom incorporated Laos into the union of Indochina. The king of Siam, seeking to keep Thailand free of foreign domination, ceded a large tract of territory – equivalent of what is now Laos and Cambodia combined – to the French. However the destruction of battle was left behind in the form of a decimated Vientiane. The Siamese took the Emerald Buddha to Bangkok where it remains today at Wat Pra Keo. The Franco-Siamese treaty of 1907 defined the present Lao boundary with Thailand. To recover its full rights and its sovereignty the Lao people started fighting against the French regime.
During the colonial period, administration, health care, and education hardly made any impact or progress at all. There was little interest in developing in Laos due to the country’s geographical nature. It was too mountainous for plantations, there was little in the way of mining, and the Mekong was not suitable for commercial navigation.
After 50 years of French rule the Japanese during WW2, occupied French Indochina including Laos. King Sisavangvong of Luang Prabang was induced to declare independence from France in 1945 by the Japanese just prior to Japan’s surrender, despite the King siding with the French. In September 1945 Vientiane and Champassak united with Luang Prabang to form an independent government under the Free Lao (Lao Issara) banner. However in 1946 French troops with the help of King Sisavanvong, reoccupied the country forming a Royal Lao government and the Lao Issara dissolved and a splinter group called the Pathet Lao formed a new resistance group based in the Northeast of Laos. The Pathet Lao were led by Prince Souphanouvong and backed by the Vietminh of North Vietnam who regarded the royalist government as Western-dominated . In 1954 France lost the battle at Dien Bien Phu against the Vietnamese which began the breakup of Indochina. France formally recognized the independence of Laos in 1949 but it wasn’t until 1954 at an International conference, the Geneva Agreement on Indochina was signed establishing the independence of Laos. At this point the US started supplying the Royal Lao Government with arms, seeing the threat of communism spreading.The US-backed Royal Lao Government ruled over a divided country from 1951 to 1954. The Geneva Conference of July 1954 granted full independence to Laos but did not settle the issue of who would rule. In 1957 an agreement was reached between the royal forces and the Pathet Lao, but in 1959 the coalition government collapsed and hostilities were renewed. Fighting broke out between the Royal Lao Army and the Pathet Lao in 1960; in 1961, a neutral independent government was set up under Prince Souvanna Phouma, based in Vientiane. There was a three way struggle for power among among neutralist, rightist, and Communist forces.