Archaeological, toponymic, and linguistic evidence indicate that the ancestors of the Georgian people have inhabited the west-central part of the southern Caucasus region for at least 5,000 years and probably much longer. In the third millenium B.C. one group of Kartvelians migrated to the northwest, reaching the east coast of the Black Sea. Place-names believed to be of Svanetian origin are found in this area. Somewhat later, these ancestors of the Svans moved upland into what is now Svaneti. Axes and other artifacts—as well as the ruins of foundries for the production of bronze and iron—dating to the early Bronze Era have been discovered in Svaneti. This indicates that the local population was engaged in metalworking in the second and first millenia B.C. The Greek geographer Strabo (end of the first century B.C. ) describes the Svans as a fierce, warlike mountain people, ruled by a king and a council of 300 elders and capable of fielding an army of 200,000. (This figure may be an exaggeration, or perhaps Strabo was including other Kartvelians under the designation "Svan.") By the time of the consolidation of a united Georgian kingdom in the eleventh century, a feudal system similar to that found elsewhere in Georgia was established in Svaneti. Most of the land belonged to the Svan nobility ( wærg, pusd ) or to the local Georgian Orthodox churches and monasteries. The peasants ( glekh ) worked the land and provided crops and other services for the landowners. Several Svan noblemen rose to powerful positions in the medieval Georgian government and were rewarded with important titles and large holdings of land in lowland Georgia.
Beginning in the mid-thirteenth century, wave upon wave of Mongol, Persian, and Turkish armies devastated the lowland parts of Georgia. Because of its remote location, much of Svaneti was never invaded. For this reason, many of the finest works of Georgian artistry—icons, illuminated manuscripts, and gold and silver items—were preserved in Svanetian churches during this period. The Svan villagers protected these treasures zealously (the theft of an icon was punishable by death, usually by stoning, even in recent times). A sizable number of objets d'art of foreign origin (Persian, Syrian, Italian, German) have also found their way into Svaneti, a testament to the wide-ranging cultural and trade contacts of medieval Georgia. After the dissolution of the Georgian empire, the land was segmented into several smaller kingdoms and principalities. Svaneti came under the nominal authority of the kingdom of Imeretia. From the sixteenth century to the beginning of the nineteenth, a handful of powerful Svan families came to exert dominance over all of the province except for the upland (eastern) half of the upper Svaneti, which came to be known as "Free Svaneti" (Tævisupæl Shwæn). There were also several peasant uprisings during this period, resulting in the decline of the feudal system in some localities.
The Treaty of Georgievsk, signed in 1783, placed the kingdoms of eastern Georgia under the protection of the Russian Empire. Most of western Georgia, including the lower Svaneti, was incorporated into the empire in 1803-1804. The people of the upper Svaneti, however, resisted the imposition of Russian rule for some time. The princely house of western upper Svaneti finally capitulated in 1833, and the rest of the province in 1853-1857. During the period of Russian rule the peasantry was freed from serfdom and given small parcels of land. After the Communist Revolution of 1917 Georgia declared its independence from Russia. In 1921 the Red Army invaded Georgia and incorporated it into the Soviet Union. In recent years notable infrastructural improvements have been made in Svaneti: schools and health centers have been opened, roads upgraded, and electricity introduced.
For many centuries the Svans have been in contact with the northern Caucasian tribes on the other side of the mountains and with the Ossetians to the east. These relations have often been hostile, with raiding parties from one or the other group attempting to seize the other's property. On the other hand, the Svans have engaged in trade with these tribes, and in earlier times many Svans worked for them as migrant laborers.