A 6.48 m sediment core sequence from Erhai lake, Yunnan Province, provides a multi-proxy record of Holocene environmental evolution and human activity in southwest China. These sedimentary records provide proxy time series for catchment vegetation, flooding, soil erosion, sediment sources and metal workings. They are complemented by independent regional climate time-series from speleothems, archaeological records of human habitation, and a detailed documented environmental history. The article attempts to integrate these data sources to provide a Holocene scale record of environmental change and human-environment interactions. These interactions are analysed in order to identify the roles of climate and social drivers on environmental change, and the lessons that may be learned about the future sustainability of the landscape. The main conclusions are: lake sediment evidence for human impacts from at least 7,500 cal year BP is supported by a terrestrial record of cultural horizons that may extend back to ?9,000 cal year BP. A major shift in the pollen assemblage, defined by detrended correspondence analysis, at ?4,800 cal year BP marks the transition from a 'nature-dominated' to a 'human-dominated' landscape. From 4,300 cal year BP, a change in river discharge responses may signal the beginning of hydraulic modification through drainage and irrigation. Major increases in disturbed land taxa and loss of forest taxa from 2,200 cal year BP onward, also associated with the start of significant topsoil erosion, register the expansion of agriculture by Han peoples. It is also the start of silver smelting linked to trade along the SW Silk Road with Dali becoming a regional centre. Peak levels of disturbed land taxa, topsoil and gully erosion are associated with the rise and fall of the Nanzhao (CE 738-902) and Dali (CE 937-1253) Kingdoms, and the documented environmental crisis that occurred in the late Ming and Qing dynasties (CE 1644-1911). The crisis coincides with a stronger summer monsoon, but exploitation of marginal agricultural land is the main driver. These historical perspectives provide insight into the resilience and sustainability of the modern agricultural system. The largest threat comes from high magnitude-low frequency flooding of lower dry farmed terraces and irrigated valley plains. A sustainable future depends on reducing the use of high altitude and steep slopes for grazing and cultivation, maintaining engineered flood defences and terraces, and anticipating the behaviour of the summer monsoon.