Firm evidence for the history of the Somali people dates back to only about AD 1000. There are folk genealogies tracing certain Somali clans to the Arabian Peninsula and associating their ancestors with the Sharifs, the family of prophet Mohammed.
Linguistic, cultural and historical evidence, however, indicates they came originally from the southern highlands of what is now Ethiopia . The basis of such claims to Arab origin may lie in trading and marriage alliance relations with old Arab colonies on the Somali coast.
Anthropological studies indicate the Digil-Rahawiin (Maay-speaking) peoples represent the earliest migration group and also the most southern.
Greek merchants and explorers in the Erythraean (Red) Sea referred to Somalia as two regions, the Berber Coast (the Red Sea Coast of Somalia) and Azania, which actually included the coasts of modern Kenya and Tanzania as well as the Somali East Coast. Traders made the journey to Somalia in order to purchase Myrrh and Frankincense, both highly valuable commodities as they were required for many religious ceremonies and in perfumes, in great demand throughout the Roman Empire, Asia, India and China .
Between the 13th and 14th centuries Somalia was visited by two famous Muslim explorers Ibn Battuta and Zheng He. Ibn Battuta in 1331 visited Mogadishu , which he described as a town of enormous size and its merchants possessed vast resources; they owned large numbers of camels, of which they slaughtered hundreds every day for food, and also had large quantities of sheep. The woven fabrics that were manufactured there he claimed were unequalled and were exported as far as Egypt and elsewhere. Zheng He on his fifth voyage (1417-19) visited several city states on the Somali coast including Mogadishu .
The Somali peoples were never under any unified political structure. Sporadic attempts such as the Gareen dynasty from the Ajuuraan in Central/Southern Somalia in the1500s (Cassanelli 1992) and the Bartire around Jigjiga , Ethiopia , in the late 1700s were overthrown violently by other clans.
The clans, with various genealogical ties, or political or military alliances, provided a broad, loose identity. In the colonial era, the various European powers easily established a hegemony, then a dominance over various divisions of the Somali peoples.
The British, French and Italian Somalilands roughly followed geographical areas of clan alliances or federations and actually helped limit clashes between different clans.
In 1960 Britain and Italy combined their territories into a unified independent Somalia . The French territory remained separate and gained independence in 1977 as Djibouti .