Human settlements existed in the early stages of the Stone Age, becoming more numerous in the Bronze Age with the arrival of the Celts and the Arvenes. Their chief, Vercingétorix, fought the invading Romans on the plateau of Gergovie, only to be defeated later in Alésia in 52 BC.
During the Middle Ages, the region was divided among feuding vassals. In 950, Le Puy-en-Velay was the starting point for one of the four pilgrimage routes to the shrine of Santiago de Compostela in Spain. The “Via Podiensis” is still traveled today by French and European pilgrims, who hike the scenic trail; the route was recently added to the UNESCO’s World Heritage List. In 1213, King Philippe-Auguste added Auvergne to the royal territory. The region suffered greatly from the ravages of the War of Religions in the 16th century and was swept by epidemics and food shortages a century later.
The 18th century saw a return to tranquility but economic resources were not enough to sustain the population, which was forced to migrate to other areas of France and abroad. The Napoléonic years brought better times and the Second Empire is credited with an economic boom spurred by the opening in 1858 of a rail line between Paris and Clermont-Ferrand.
During World War II, a 4,900-foot peak, Mont Mouchet, became a stronghold of French resistance against German occupation and the site of a fierce battle that led to 4,000 casualties on both sides in June 1944.