Lontara is a descendant of the Kawi script, used in Maritime Southeast Asia around 800 CE. It is unclear whether the script is a direct descendant from Kawi, or derived from one of Kawi's other descendants. One theory states that it is modelled after the Rejang script, perhaps due to their graphical similarities. But this claim may be unfounded as some characters of the Lontara are a late development.

The term Lontara has also come to refer to literature regarding Bugis history and genealogy, including the Sure’ Galigo creation myth. Historically, Lontara was also used for a range of documents including contracts, trade laws, treaties, maps, and journals. These documents are commonly written in a contemporary-like book form, but they can be written in a traditional palm-leaf manuscript also called Lontara, in which a long, thin strip of dried lontar is rolled to a wooden axis in similar manner to a tape recorder. The text is then read by scrolling the lontar strip from left to right.

Although the Latin alphabet has largely replaced Lontara, it is still used to a limited extent in Bugis and Makasar. In Bugis, its usage is limited to ceremonial purposes such as wedding ceremonies. Lontara is also used extensively in printing traditional Buginese literature. In Makasar, Lontara is additionally used for personal documents such as letters and notes. Those who are skilled in writing the script are known as palontara, or 'writing specialists'.