Archeological findings have shown that the region around Kiruna has been inhabited for at least 6,000 years.
Centuries before Kiruna was founded in 1900, the presence of iron ore at Kiirunavaara and Luossavaara had been known by the local Sami population. In 1696, Samuel Mört, a bookkeeper of the Kengis works, wrote on the presence of iron in the two hills. The Swedish senior enforcement officer and cartographer and mapper Anders Hackzell mapped the Kiruna area in 1736 and gave the mountains of the area their Swedish language names Fredriks berg (original Finnish name still in use as well: Kiirunavaara) and Berget Ulrika Eleonora (original Finnish name still in use as well: Luossavaara), after the King of Sweden Fredrik I and his wife Ulrika Eleonora.
Despite the findings of large amounts of ore, no mining was initiated because of the remote location and the harsh climate. Some ore was extracted in the 19th century. It was extracted in summer and transported in winter, using sleds drawn by reindeer and horses. However, the costs were high and the quality of the phosphorus ore poor, until, in 1878, the Gilchrist-Thomas process, invented by Sidney Gilchrist Thomas and Percy Gilchrist, allowed for the separation of phosphorus from the ore.
In 1884, a concession for a railway from Luleå to Narvik was granted to The Northern of Europe Railway Company. The provisional railway between Luleå and Malmberget was finished in 1888 and the first train left Malmberget in March. Around the same time, the English company went bankrupt and had to sell the line to the Swedish state for 8 million Swedish crowns, around half the amount initially invested. After a significant rebuild, the railway to Gällivare could be used again and iron ore was extracted at Malmberget by Aktiebolaget Gellivare Malmfält (AGM).