Abstract Aim The assumedly anomalous occurrence of savannas and forest–savanna mosaics in the Gran Sabana – a neotropical region under a climate more suitable for tropical rain forests – has been attributed to a variety of historical, climatic, and anthropogenic factors. This paper describes a previously undocumented shift in vegetation and climate that occurred during the early Holocene, and evaluates its significance for the understanding of the origin of the Gran Sabana vegetation. Location A treeless savanna locality of the Gran Sabana (4°30′–6°45′ N and 60°34′–62°50′ W), in the Venezuelan Guayana of northern South America, at the headwaters of the Caroní river, one of the major tributaries of the Orinoco river. Methods Pollen and charcoal analysis of a previously dated peat section spanning from about the Pleistocene/Holocene boundary until the present. Results Mesothermic cloud forests dominated by Catostemma (Bombacaceae) occupied the site around the Pleistocene/Holocene boundary. During the early Holocene, a progressive but relatively rapid trend towards savanna vegetation occurred, and eventually the former cloud forests were replaced by a treeless savanna. Some time after the establishment of savannas, a marked increase in charcoal particles indicates the occurrence of the first local fires. Main conclusions The occurrence of cloud forests at the Pleistocene/Holocene boundary contradicts the historical hypothesis according to which the Gran Sabana is a relict of the hypothetical widespread savannas that have been assumed to have dominated the region during the last glaciation. The first local fires recorded in the Holocene were on savanna vegetation, which is against the hypothesis of fire as the triggering factor for the establishment of these savannas. Climate change, in the form of global warming and a persistently drier climate, emerges as the most probable cause for the forest–savanna turnover.