The area has been inhabited by humans at least since the Upper Paleolithic, as attested by the famous cave paintings at Chauvet Pont d'Arc. The plateau of the Ardèche river has extensive standing stones (dolmens and menhirs), erected thousands of years ago. The river has the largest canyon in Europe and the caves that dot the cliffs (which go as high as 300 m (1,000 feet)) are known for signs of prehistoric inhabitants (arrowheads and flint knives are often found).
The Vivarais, as the Ardèche is still called, takes its name and coat-of-arms from Viviers, which was the capital of the Gaulish tribe of Helvii, part of Gallia Narbonensis, after the destruction of their previous capital at Alba-la-Romaine. Saint Andéol, a disciple of St Polycarp, is supposed to have evangelized the Vivarais during the reign of Emperor Septimius Severus, and was supposedly martyred in 208. Legend tells of Andéol's burial by Amycia Eucheria Tullia. In 430, Auxonius transferred the see to Viviers as a result of the problems suffered at its previous site in Alba Augusta.
In the early 10th century, economic recovery saw the building of many Romanesque churches in the region including Ailhon, Mercuer, St Julien du Serre, Balazuc, Niègles and Rochecolombe. The medieval county of Viviers or Vivarais at this time was administratively a part of the Kingdom of Arles, formed in 933 with the fusion by Rudolph II of Burgundy of the realms of Provence and Burgundy and bequeathed by its last monarch Rudolph III of Burgundy to the Holy Roman Emperor Conrad II in 1032. Locally throughout this period, the Church played an important role. John II (Giovanni of Siena), Cardinal and Bishop of Viviers (1073–95), accompanied Pope Urban II to the Council of Clermont. It was later held in fief by the Counts of Toulouse, who lost it to the French crown in 1229. In 1284, with the Cistercian Abbey of Marzan, Philip IV established Villeneuve de Berg, and by the treaty of 10 July 1305 Philip IV of France obliged the bishops of Vivarais to admit the sovereignty of the Kings of France over all their temporal domain. The realm was largely ignored by the Emperors and was finally granted to France as part of the domain of the Dauphin, the future Charles VII of Valois in 1308. During this period, the Maillard family, as Counts of Tournon, were influential in the Ardèche. During the Hundred Years War, the area maintained its loyalty to the French crown, despite frequent attacks from the west.
As a result of the reformation of John Calvin in Geneva, the Vivarais Ardèche was one of the areas which strongly embraced Protestantism partly as a result of the missionary activity of 1534 by Jacques Valery. During the following Wars of Religion (1562–1598), the Ardèche was considered a strategically important location between Protestant Geneva, Lyon and Catholic Languedoc. The region had prospered with the introduction of tobacco growing from America, and the agrarian experiments of Olivier de Serres, father of modern French agriculture. The influence of Protestant Lyon, and the growth of the silk industry, thanks to the planting of mulberry trees, had given the burghers of the Vivarais towns a certain independence of thinking, and with the support of powerful Protestant Huguenots, (the Comte de Crussol and Olivier de Serres), the Vivarais became a Protestant stronghold. As a result, it suffered many attacks and eight pitched battles between 1562 and 1595. In 1598, the Edict of Nantes put an end to these struggles. At that time, the Vivarais had over 75 Protestant churches and five fortified strongholds with permanent garrisons. However, the problems of the area were not over. In 1629, Paule de Chambaud, daughter of the Huguenot lord of Privas, chose instead to marry a Catholic, the Vicomte de l'Estrange, who supported the persecution of Protestants by Cardinal Richelieu. Privas, with a majority of the population Protestant, refused to submit, and as a centre of the revolt of the Benjamin de Rohan, duc de Soubise, was burned to the ground by the forces of Louis XIII, sent to support the Vicomte de l'Estrange. As a result, one-fifth of the Protestant population of the Vivarais emigrated.