Sediment records from the Tarim Basin of western China are of great importance for understanding Late Quaternary climatic variability in Central Asia. A chronology of aeolian and lacustrine deposits from the centre and southern margin of the Taklamakan Desert, central Tarim Basin, has been established using optical dating methods. Distinct variations in humidity during the last 40,000 a in this extremely arid inland basin have been identified. Lacustrine sediments were deposited in the centre of the Taklamakan during two periods of wetter than present day conditions at around 2000 and 30,000 a ago. Another humid period is recorded between 40,000 and 30,000 a ago. Aeolian processes, the development of large migrating dune fields dominated during periods of more arid conditions. Sand wedges at the southern margin of the Taklamakan are dated at ca 40,000 a and ca 18,000 a, and imply a significant temperature decrease in that area. Sedimentological evidence for a late Holocene humid period are consistent with records in ancient Chinese literature. Wetter environmental conditions in the past within the Taklamakan, as indicated by the presence of lacustrine deposits, are also supported by data from adjacent regions. It is assumed that changes of global westerlies and of the mobile polar high triggered the fluctuations of precipitation in the study area. However, variations in temperature in the Taklamakan Desert are presumed to be mainly controlled by the intensity of the winter monsoon.