Khmer, the dominant group (about 5 million people) in Cambodia (formerly Kampuchea), comprising over 87 percent of the national population.
The Khmer moved down from the area now known as Thailand into the Mekong Delta before 200 bc. Over the following centuries, their culture was subject to a series of waves of Indian influence. The first Khmer kingdom, Funan (1st to 6th centuries), was incorporated into the state of Chenla, which was succeeded by the Khmer Empire. This extensive empire, which reached its zenith between the 9th and 13th centuries, is famed for its artistic and architectural achievements (for example, the temple of Angkor Wat). Forced to retreat progressively by advancing Thais and Vietnamese, the empire became so weak it eventually had to seek French protection, granted in 1864. After winning independence in 1954, the country was led by Norodom Sihanouk. His overthrow in 1970 was followed by a period of civil war and the rule, between 1975 and 1979, of the notorious Khmer Rouge revolutionary movement.
Until the Khmer Rouge forcibly collectivized farmland, the vast majority of Khmer lived in villages. These small groupings were effectively self-sufficient and enjoyed a high degree of autonomy. Rice is the staple crop, supplemented by subsistence fishing. Most Khmer are Buddhists. Traditionally, Khmer society was divided into six categories: the extended royal family; Brahmins, who conducted the royal rituals; monks; officials; commoners; and slaves. Before the Khmer Rouge took power, the life of Khmer communities centred around local monasteries whose leaders exerted great influence in their area.
The language, Khmer, of the Mon-Khmer linguistic group, has been written since the 7th century and has an extensive literature.