Based on fossil evidence found at the Olduvai Gorge, various hominid species have occupied the area for 3 million years. Hunter-gatherers were replaced by pastoralists a few thousand years ago. The Mbulu came to the area about 2,000 years ago and were joined by the Datoga around the year 1700. Both groups were driven from the area by the Maasai in the 1800s. Massive fig trees in the northwest of the Lerai Forest are sacred to the Maasai and the Datooga. Some of them may have been planted on the grave of a Datago leader who died in battle with the Maasai around 1840.
The National Park Ordinance of 1948 (implemented in 1951) created the Serengeti National Park (SNP). This, however, caused problems with the Maasai and other tribes, resulting in the NCA Ordinance (1959) that separated the Ngorongoro Conservation Area from the Serengeti National Park. The Ngorongoro Conservation Area Authority was established by the Game Park Laws (miscellaneous amendments) Act, 1976 and manages Ngorongoro Conservation Area including Ngorongoro crater. The Conservation Area became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979.
Land in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area is multi-use and unique because it is the only Protected Area in Tanzania that protects wildlife while allowing human habitation. Land use is controlled to prevent negative effects on the wildlife population. For example, cultivation is prohibited at all. The area is part of the Serengeti ecosystem and, to the Northwest, adjoins the SNP and is contiguous with the Southern Serengeti plains. These plains also extend to the North into the unprotected Loliondo division and are kept open to wildlife through transhumance pastoralism practiced by the Maasai. The South and West of the Area are volcanic highlands, including the famous Ngorongoro Crater and the lesser known Empakaa Crater. The Southern and Eastern boundaries are approximately defined by the rim of the East African Rift wall, which also prevents animal migration in these directions.