They are studied by sociologists in four geographical and linguistic sub-divisions: the lower or Lolo Makua, the upper or Lomwe Makua, the Maua and the Niassa Makua or Medo. They speak variants of the Makua language, also called Emakua, and this is a Bantu-group language. The total Makua population is estimated to be about 3.5 million of which over 1 million speak the lower (southern) dialect and about 2 million the upper (northern, Lomwe) version; given the large region and population, several ethnic groups that share the region with the Makua people also speak the Emakua.
A mythical legend, in the oral tradition of the Makua people, tells that their ancestor were the first man and woman born of Namuli which is their original home, while other living creatures came from nearby mountains. Scholars are uncertain whether their origins are in the mountains, or west of Lake Malawi, or northern lands such as in Tanzania or the south. However they concur that they likely have been an established ethnic group in northern Mozambique region by the 1st millennium CE. The Makua people are closely related to the Animist Maravi people. They have had a history of conflict with the Muslim Yao people in the north involved in slave raids and slave trading.
The Makua people have a documented history of metal ore processing and tools manufacturing. The colonial era Portuguese naturalist, Manuel Galvao da Silva for example, described iron mines of the Makua people. Similarly, the French explorer Eugene de Froberville summarized the indigenous Makua iron manufacturing methods from iron ore, where the Makua people extracted the metal by processing the ore in a wood-burning hearth as a community. The extracted metal was then worked into axes, knives, spear, rings and other items.
The Makua people have traditionally been dedicated to agriculture and hunting, yet medieval era documents suggest that the Makua people were also successful traders that controlled the trade routes between Lake Malawi and the Atlantic coast doing brisk business with the Swahili (East Africa) and Gujarati (India) merchants before the start of the colonial era. However, prior to the 18th-century, the Makua population was primarily exchanging food, ivory tusks and metal products for textiles, salt and other products, but they were not involved in the trade of ivory or gold.
The Portuguese who arrived in Mozambique in early 16th-century describe them for their trading relationships and expertise. The colonial settlers contacted the Makua people in early 16th century. The Makua people were generally peaceful with the colonial Portuguese in 17th century and through about the mid 18th century. However, with a rise in plantations, dramatic increase in ivory trade which required large scale killing of elephants, and particularly slave raids that captured Makua people in the 18th-century, the Makua people retaliated with a war of attrition from 1749 onwards, against the Portuguese and those ethnic groups that supported the colonial interests, and against the Sultans on the African coast of Indian Ocean.