We used fossil pollen to investigate the response of the eastern Chiquitano seasonally-dry tropical forest (SDTF), lowland Bolivia, to high-amplitude climate change associated with glacial–interglacial cycles. Changes in the structure, composition and diversity of the past vegetation are compared with palaeoclimate data previously reconstructed from the same record, and these results shed light on the biogeographic history of today’s highly disjunct blocks of SDTF across South America. We demonstrate that lower glacial temperatures limited tropical forest in the Chiquitanía region, and suggest that SDTF was absent or restricted at latitudes below 17°S, the proposed location of the majority of the hypothesized ‘Pleistocene dry forest arc’ (PDFA). At 19500 yrs b.p., warming supported the establishment of a floristically-distinct SDTF, which showed little change throughout the glacial–Holocene transition, despite a shift to significantly wetter conditions beginning ca. 12500–12200 yrs b.p. Anadenanthera colubrina, a key SDTF taxon, arrived at 10000 yrs b.p., which coincides with the onset of drought associated with an extended dry season. Lasting until 3000 yrs b.p., Holocene drought caused a floristic shift to more drought-tolerant taxa and a reduction in α-diversity (shown by declining palynological richness), but closed-canopy forest was maintained throughout. In contrast to the PDFA, the modern distribution of SDTF most likely represents the greatest spatial coverage of these forests in southern South America since glacial times. We find that temperature is a key climatic control upon the distribution of lowland South American SDTF over glacial-interglacial timescales, and seasonality of rainfall exerts a strong control on their floristic composition.