The Tetun (or Tetum) of central Timor are one of the largest ethnic groups on the island and boast the dominant indigenous language. Before Portuguese and Dutch colonisation, they were fragmented into dozens of small states led by various chiefs. Conflict was common, and headhunting a popular pastime.

The first Europeans in Timor were the Portuguese, who prized its endemic cendana (sandalwood) trees. When the Dutch landed in Kupang in the mid-17th century, a prolonged battle for control of the sandalwood trade began, which the Dutch eventually won. The two colonial powers divvied the island in a series of treaties signed between 1859 and 1913. Portugal was awarded the eastern half plus the enclave of Oecussi, the island’s first settlement.

Neither European power penetrated far into the interior until the 1920s, and the island’s political structure was left largely intact. The colonisers spread Christianity and ruled through the native aristocracy, but some locals claim Europeans corrupted Timor’s royal bloodlines by aligning with imported, and eventually triumphant, Rotenese kingdoms. When Indonesia won independence in 1949 the Dutch left West Timor, but the Portuguese still held East Timor. In 1975 East Timor declared itself independent from Indonesia and shortly afterwards Indonesia invaded, setting the stage for the tragedy that continued until 2002 when East Timor's independence was officially recognised.

During August 1999, in a UN-sponsored referendum, the people of East Timor voted in favour of independence. Violence erupted when pro-Jakarta militias, backed by the Indonesian military, destroyed buildings and infrastructure across the East, leaving up to 1400 civilians dead before peacekeepers intervened. Back in West Timor, the militias were responsible for the lynching of three UN workers in Atambua in 2000, making West Timor an international pariah. After several turbulent years, relations normalised by 2006 and road and transport links were restored.