An improved understanding of present-day climate variability and change relies on high-quality data sets from the past 2 millennia. Global efforts to model regional climate modes are in the process of being validated against, and integrated with, records of past vegetation change. For South America, however, the full potential of vegetation records for evaluating and improving climate models has hitherto not been sufficiently acknowledged due to an absence of information on the spatial and temporal coverage of study sites. This paper therefore serves as a guide to high-quality pollen records that capture environmental variability during the last 2 millennia. We identify 60 vegetation (pollen) records from across South America which satisfy geochronological requirements set out for climate modelling, and we discuss their sensitivity to the spatial signature of climate modes throughout the continent. Diverse patterns of vegetation response to climate change are observed, with more similar patterns of change in the lowlands and varying intensity and direction of responses in the highlands. Pollen records display local-scale responses to climate modes; thus, it is necessary to understand how vegetation–climate interactions might diverge under variable settings. We provide a qualitative translation from pollen metrics to climate variables. Additionally, pollen is an excellent indicator of human impact through time. We discuss evidence for human land use in pollen records and provide an overview considered useful for archaeological hypothesis testing and important in distinguishing natural from anthropogenically driven vegetation change. We stress the need for the palynological community to be more familiar with climate variability patterns to correctly attribute the potential causes of observed vegetation dynamics. This manuscript forms part of the wider LOng-Term multi-proxy climate REconstructions and Dynamics in South America – 2k initiative that provides the ideal framework for the integration of the various palaeoclimatic subdisciplines and palaeo-science, thereby jump-starting and fostering multidisciplinary research into environmental change on centennial and millennial timescales.