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Tanzania is home to the Oldupai Gorge, the site where some of the earliest human remains on earth have been discovered. For hundreds of thousands of years, hunter-gatherer societies inhabited the area. More recently, the interior of the country has been occupied by pastoral and agricultural societies.
The cattle-herding Maasai are notable among these. They are known to have settled as far south as Dodoma by the early 19th century, and still live around Tanzania’s game parks to this day. Today, many Maasai proudly continue their traditional way of life with few inroads from modern civilization, especially in northern Tanzania.
Over one thousand years ago, sea-borne traders established a strong Arab presence on Tanzania’s Indian Ocean coast, which includes the island of Zanzibar. Sultans of Oman ruled Zanzibar by the 18th century, and in 1832 Sultan Seyyid Said located his capital city there. Because of this history, Islam continues to be the dominant religion on Zanzibar today.
Rivalry among European colonial powers brought historic change to the area in the 19th century. The British made Zanzibar their protectorate in 1890, but on the mainland they yielded to Germany after German explorer Carl Peters laid the groundwork for colonial exploitation of the country. A signed agreement gave Germany what was then known as Tanganyika, while Britain got Kenya and Uganda. Following Germany’s defeat in Europe during World War I, Britain was put in charge of the League of Nations mandate for Tanganyika.
In the 20th century, the movement to end colonialism in Tanganyika took shape among farmers’ unions and cooperatives. Julius Nyerere led the political party that grew out of this movement, and became the country’s first president after a peaceful transition to independence in 1961, with the island of Zanzibar gaining independence in 1963. Tanganyika, Zanzibar, and Pemba (another offshore island) joined together in 1964 to become the United Republic of Tanzania.
In November 1985, Nyerere retired and was succeeded in the presidency by Ali Hassan Mwinyi. Nyerere continued as the chairman of the Revolutionary Party of Tanzania until August 1990. Tanzania began moving toward a multiparty system in the early 1990s; in 1992 a new constitutional rule allowed for the formation of other parties provided they were active in both Tanganyika (the mainland) and Zanzibar. The ruling was meant to address the growing Zanzibari concern that unification had relegated the island to second-place status. But when the first multi-party elections took place in 1995, there were sharp divisions between the island and the mainland; these divisions would crop up periodically throughout the next two decades.
In recent years Tanzania has emerged as one of the anchors for the East African region, accepting refugees from the conflicts in Rwanda, hosting peace talks for Burundi, and forming an East African trade alliance with neighboring states like Kenya.