East African ecosystems are shaped by long-term interaction with changing climate, human population, fire and wildlife. There remains today a strong connection between people and ecosystems, a relationship that is being strained by the rapidly developing and growing East African population, and their associated resource needs. Predicted climatic and atmospheric change will further impact on ecosystems culminating in a host of challenges for their management and sustainable development, further compounded by a backdrop of political, land tenure and economic constraints. Given the many direct and indirect benefits that ecosystems provide to surrounding human populations, understanding how they have changed over time and space deserves a special place on the ecosystem management agenda. Such a perspective can only be derived from a palaeoecology, particularly where there is high resolution, both through time and across space. The East African palaeoecological archive is reviewed, in particular to assess how it can meet this need. Although there remain crucial gaps, the number of palaeoecological archives from East Africa growing rapidly, some employing new and novel techniques to trace past ecosystem response to climate change. When compared to the archaeological record it is possible to disentangle human from climate change impacts, and how the former interacts with major environmental changes such as increased use of fire, changing herbivore densities and increased atmospheric CO2 concentration. With this multi-dimensional perspective of environmental change impacts it is imperative that our understanding of past human-ecosystem interactions are considered to impart effective long term management strategies; such an approach will enhance possibilities for a sustainable future for East African ecosystems and maximise the livelihoods of the populations that rely on them.