The Tofalar are the indigenous people of the area. In the territory of Tofalaria archaeologists have found not only remains of Neolithic settlements, but cliff drawings and paintings ( risunki ) of animals, and petroglyphs of the same period (Okladnikov 1979, 62-80). The Ket, the Assan, and the Arin tribes related to the Ket, and the Sayan Samoyeds were apparently the historical descendants of this same Neolithic population until recent times. A linguistic substratum is evidenced by the Samoyed and, in particular, Ket place-names in Tofalaria. The Ket substratum is also attested to in appreciable Ket elements that show up in the phonology and vocabulary of Tofalar. The Turkicization of the aboriginal population of the Sayan area took place in the Old Turkic period; witness the Oghuz and, in particular, the Old Turkic elements in Tofalar today, which account for the inclusion of the Tofalar language with other languages in the Sayan Subgroup (Baskakov 1969, 313). There was also a significant influence from Mongolia in the Middle Ages, and later from Buriat.
All of this testifies to the deep and long-standing economic and cultural relations between those groups. Contacts with Russians began in 1648 when the stockaded town of Udin (now the city of Nizhneudinsk) was built by the Tofalar together with other tribes then occupying the Eastern Sayans and the Pribaikal area. The area was linked to the Russian state at this time and began to pay tribute in furs. In 1920 Soviet authority was established in Tofalaria. In 1929-1930 the Tofalar, until then nomads on the taiga, were forced into a sedentary life and settled in three large settlements poselki (sing., poselok ): Alydzh, Nerkha, and Upper Gutara. In addition to Tofalar, Russians, Ukrainians, Tatars, and other peoples of Russia lived there and had, as they still do, close economic, cultural, and marital relations with them. During their nomadic days, the Tofalar had contact only with the neighboring Kamasins, Turin-Toiin, Nizhneudin, and Okin Buriat, among whom many Tofalar selected wives; the Toiin live among the Tofalar and speak Tofalar.