In the first century, the Sao people settled around Lake Chad and it is from them that much of the country's remarkable sculpture originates.
Present-day Cameroon was at the heartland of an area that extended into Nigeria, under the control of the Duala people. An estimated 200 distinct ethnic groups live in the region, the largest of which is the Bamileke, a tribe occupying the west and centre of the country.
Equatorial Bantu live in the area between the Congo basin and the plateaux of the interior, while small hunting bands of pygmies dwell in the remote southern forests.
The Portuguese arrived in the 15th century; later, in the 1880s, the area became a German protectorate. But after Germany's defeat in WWI, Cameroon was divided between Britain and France.
French Cameroon achieved independence in 1957, under the control of the principal pro-independence party, the Union Nationale Camerounaise (UNC). In 1961, the northern provinces voted to become part of Nigeria, while the south opted for union with French Cameroon. A centralised political and administrative system was introduced with the veteran northern politician, Ahmadou Ahidjo, as president.
In 1975, Paul Biya became prime minister. When Ahidjo stepped down in 1982, Biya was his successor. Since then, as head of the UNC and its successor party, the Rassemblement Démocratique du Peuple Camerounais (RDPC), Biya has achieved political domination over Cameroon.
In general terms, opposition to Biya is concentrated in the north, among the Muslim communities, and among anglophone regions, which fear discrimination at the hands of the predominately francophone regime.
Cameroon joined the Commonwealth in 1995 and the UN Security Council in 2002, as one of three African representatives (with Angola and Guinea). As a result, Cameroon found itself subject to serious pressure over the Iraq issue during early 2003.