Formerly the world's fourth largest lake by area, the Aral Sea is presently undergoing extreme desiccation due to large-scale irrigation strategies implemented in the Soviet era. As part of the INTAS-funded CLIMAN project into Holocene climatic variability and the evolution of human settlement in the Aral Sea basin, fossil diatom assemblages contained within a sediment core obtained from the Aral Sea have been applied to a diatom-based inference model of conductivity (r
2 = 0.767, RMSEP = 0.469 log10 μS cm− 1). This has provided a high-resolution record of conductivity and lake level change over the last ca. 1600 yr. Three severe episodes of lake level regression are indicated at ca. AD 400, AD 1195–1355 and ca. AD 1780 to the present day. The first two regressions may be linked to the natural diversion of the Amu Darya away from the Aral Sea and the failure of cyclones formed in the Mediterranean to penetrate more continental regions. Human activity, however, and in particular the destruction of irrigation facilities are synchronous with these early regressions and contributed to the severity of the observed low stands.