Chinese scholars count the Lahu among the ancient Qiang people of the Qinghai-Tibetan plateau. Migrating slowly southward, ancestral Lahu, along with other Qiang peoples, are said to have settled around Dali during the third to fifth centuries A.D. , where they were known as the Kun or Kunming. Sometime during the next five centuries, during which they were dominated by various ruling dynasties in central Yunnan, the Lahu appear to have become consolidated as a distinct ethnolinguistic group. From the tenth century, according to Chinese sources, the Lahu began a large-scale southerly migration, during which they bifurcated. The ancestors of the Lahu Na took a westerly route, while those of the Lahu Shi, along with the Lahu Hpu, preferred an easterly one. Eventually most Lahu came under the jurisdiction of Tai feudal overlords, recognized by the Chinese government as tusi, "native chiefs," holding imperial seals legitimizing their rule in the name of the Son of Heaven. During the Ming dynasty, the imperial authorities began a process of replacing native leaders by Han officials, a policy continued under the Qing dynasty, when it first affected the Lahu areas. Some Lahu areas were brought under direct Chinese control; others were administered jointly by a Chinese magistrate and a native ruler. Between the eighteenth and early twentieth centuries various sections of Lahu people (some led by warriorpriests) rebelled against these imperial authorities, Lahu fighters facing far better-armed Chinese troops with nothing but their crossbows and poison-tipped arrows. One by one, the rebellions were put down; the majority of Lahu accepted the inevitability of Chinese rule, but some fled southward into Burmese and Lao territory. Lahu were well established in the Burmese Shan States by the 1830s and in Laos by midcentury. They probably began moving into north Thailand in the 1870s or 1880s.
In recent centuries Lahu have mostly lived in mountainous areas, their villages interspersed with those of other ethnic groups, notably Wa and Hani (Akha) in the south and Yi in the north, but also many others. The rich alluvial valleys below their mountain homes have been controlled mostly by Tai peoples. Han Chinese settlers in southern Yunnan have tended to occupy lands in the foothills, above the valley bottoms but below the elevations favored by the true hill peoples. Lahu culture has been greatly influenced by its neighbors, particularly the Tai and Han Chinese.