Palynological studies document forest disappearance during the late Holocene in the tropical Maya lowlands of northern Guatemala. The question remains as to whether this vegetation change was driven exclusively by anthropogenic deforestation, as previously suggested, or whether it was partly attributable to climate changes. We report multiple palaeoclimate and palaeoenvironment proxies (pollen, geochemical, sedimentological) from sediment cores collected in Lake Petén Itzá, northern Guatemala. Our data indicate that the earliest phase of late Holocene tropical forest reduction in this area started at ∼ 4500 cal yr BP, simultaneous with the onset of a circum-Caribbean drying trend that lasted for ∼ 1500 yr. This forest decline preceded the appearance of anthropogenically associated Zea mays pollen. We conclude that vegetation changes in Petén during the period from ∼ 4500 to ∼ 3000 cal yr BP were largely a consequence of dry climate conditions. Furthermore, palaeoclimate data from low latitudes in North Africa point to teleconnective linkages of this drying trend on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.