Estonia was first inhabited about 10,000 years ago, just after the Baltic ice lake had retreated from Estonia. Living in the same area for more than 5,000 years would put the ancestors of Estonians among the oldest permanent inhabitants in Europe. On the other hand, some recent linguistic estimations suggest that Finno-Ugrian language arrived around the Baltic Sea considerably later, perhaps during the Early Bronze Age (ca. 1800 BCE).
The oldest known endonym of the Estonians is Maarahvas. Eesti, the modern endonym of Estonia, is thought to be derived from the word Aestii, the name given by the ancient Germanic people to the Baltic people living northeast of the Vistula River. The Roman historian Tacitus in 98 AD was the first to mention the "Aestii" people, and early Scandinavians called the land south of the Gulf of Finland "Eistland" (Eistland is also the current word in Icelandic for Estonia), and the people "eistr". Proto-Estonians (as well as other speakers of the Finnish language group) were also called Chuds (чудь) in Old East Slavic chronicles.
The Estonian language belongs to the Finnic branch of the Uralic family of languages, as does the Finnish language. The branch is a little more than 1000 years old. The first known book in Estonian was printed in 1525, while the oldest known examples of written Estonian originate in 13th-century chronicles.
Although Estonian national consciousness spread in the course of the 19th century during the Estonian national awakening, some degree of ethnic awareness preceded this development. By the 18th century the self-denomination eestlane spread among Estonians along with the older maarahvas. Anton thor Helle's translation of the Bible into Estonian appeared in 1739, and the number of books and brochures published in Estonian increased from 18 in the 1750s to 54 in the 1790s. By the end of the century more than a half of adult peasants could read. The first university-educated intellectuals identifying themselves as Estonians, including Friedrich Robert Faehlmann (1798–1850), Kristjan Jaak Peterson (1801–1822) and Friedrich Reinhold Kreutzwald (1803–1882), appeared in the 1820s. The ruling elites had remained predominantly German in language and culture since the conquest of the early 13th century. Garlieb Merkel (1769–1850), a Baltic-German Estophile, became the first author to treat the Estonians as a nationality equal to others; he became a source of inspiration for the Estonian national movement, modelled on Baltic German cultural world before the middle of the 19th century. However, in the middle of the century, the Estonians became more ambitious and started leaning toward the Finns as a successful model of national movement and, to some extent, toward the neighbouring Latvian national movement. By the end of 1860 the Estonians became unwilling to reconcile with German cultural and political hegemony. Before the attempts at Russification in the 1880s, their view of Imperial Russia remained positive.
Estonians have strong ties to the Nordic countries stemming from important cultural and religious influences gained over centuries during Scandinavian and German rule and settlement. Indeed, Estonians consider themselves Nordic rather than Baltic, in particular because of close ethnic and linguistic affinities with the Finns.
After the Treaty of Tartu (1920) recognised Estonia's 1918 independence from Russia, ethnic Estonians residing in Russia gained the option of opting for Estonian citizenship (those who opted were called optandid - 'optants') and returning to their fatherland. An estimated 40,000 Estonians lived in Russia in 1920. In sum, 37,578 people moved from Soviet Russia to Estonia (1920–1923).