Of Petroglyphs & Pygmies

Gabon has been inhabited for at least 400,000 years. Some 1200 rock paintings made by iron-working cultures that razed the forest for agriculture, creating today's savannah, have been found in the area around Lopé National Park. The earliest modern society, the Pygmies, was displaced between the 16th and 18th centuries by migrating peoples from the north, principally the Fang, who came after settling in what is now Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea.

Contact with Europeans, starting with the arrival of the Portuguese in 1472, had a profound effect on tribal structures. British, Dutch and French ships traded for slaves, ivory and tropical woods. The coastal tribes established strong ties with these colonial powers, but the interior tribes defended their lands against European encroachment.

The Omar Bongo Years

The newly independent nation got off to an extravagant start. As money rolled in from the sale of timber, manganese ore, iron ore, chrome, gold, diamonds and, finally, oil, Gabon's per-capita income soared higher than South Africa's. Relations with France remained tight throughout Bongo's rule.

In 1976 Bongo's government announced a four-year, US$32 billion plan to create a modern transport system, encourage local industry and develop mineral deposits. Few of these projects ever took shape. The government did, however, spend vast sums hosting a summit of the Organization of African Unity in 1977 and (conservative estimates say) US$250 million on the presidential palace.

In 1990, after the country's first real political unrest, Bongo ended more than two decades of one-party rule by legalising the opposition (though subsequent elections were marred by fraud). He died, at the age of 73, in a Spanish hospital in 2009, officially of a heart attack though it's widely believed that he was suffering from cancer. Gabon initially denied the death of the man it couldn't bear to see gone, but two days after the news leaked from Paris, it was confirmed by Libreville. At the funeral in Libreville, France's President Sarkozy was jeered at – many Gabonese felt the relationship with Paris had gone too far.

Libreville & Liberation

The capital, Libreville, was established in 1849 for freed slaves, on an estuary popular with traders. In 1885 the Berlin Conference of European powers recognised French rights in Gabon, which became part of the French Congo and later French Equatorial Africa. The country became self-governing in 1958, and won independence in 1960 under President Léon M'Ba. After M'Ba died in a French hospital in 1967, his vice-president, Albert Bernard Bongo, took power of the nation (changing his name to Omar when he adopted Islam in 1974).