The Yuanmou Man, a Homo erectus fossil unearthed by railway engineers in the 1960s, has been determined to be the oldest known hominid fossil in China. By the Neolithic period, there were human settlements in the area of Lake Dian. These people used stone tools and constructed simple wooden structures.
Around the third century BC, the central area of Yunnan around present day Kunming was known as Dian. The Chu general Zhuang Jiao entered the region from the upper Yangtze River and set himself up as "King of Dian". He and his followers brought into Yunnan an influx of Chinese influence, the start of a long history of migration and cultural expansion.
In 221 BC, Qin Shi Huang unified China and extended his authority south. Commanderies and counties were established in Yunnan. An existing road in Sichuan – the "Five Foot Way" – was extended south to around present day Qujing (曲靖), in eastern Yunnan. In 109 BC, Emperor Wu sent General Guo Chang south to Yunnan, establishing Yizhou commandery and twenty-four subordinate counties. The commandery seat was at Dianchi County (present day Jinning). Another county was called "Yunnan", probably the first use of the name. To expand the burgeoning trade with Burma and India, Emperor Wu also sent Tang Meng to maintain and expand the Five Foot Way, renaming it "Southwest Barbarian Way" (西南夷道).
During the Three Kingdoms, the territory of present day Yunnan, Qianxi and southern Sichuan was collectively called Nanzhong. The dissolution of Chinese central authority led to increased autonomy for Yunnan and more power for the local tribal structures. In AD 225, the famed statesman Zhuge Liang led three columns into Yunnan to pacify the tribes. His seven captures of Meng Huo, a local magnate, are much celebrated in Chinese folklore.
In the fourth century, northern China was largely overrun by nomadic tribes from the north. In the 320s, the Cuan (爨) clan migrated into Yunnan. Cuan Chen (爨琛) named himself king and held authority from Lake Dian (then called Kunchuan. Henceforth the Cuan clan ruled Yunnan for over four hundred years. In 738, the kingdom of Nanzhao was established in Yunnan by Piluoge, who was confirmed by the imperial court of the Tang Dynasty as king of Yunnan. Ruling from Dali, the thirteen kings of Nanzhao ruled over more than two centuries and played a part in the dynamic relationship between China and Tibet. In 937, Duan Siping overthrew the Nanzhao and established the Kingdom of Dali. The kingdom was conquered by the Mongol and Chinese armies of Kublai Khan.
Yunnan passed to the Qing dynasty in 1659 and became a province of China under the control of the central government. It was a major center of Chinese resistance in World War II. The People’s Republic of China took Yunnan province in control in 1950.
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