West Africa is among the most populated regions of the world, and it is predicted to continue to have one of the fastest growing populations in the first half of the 21st century. More than 35% of its GDP comes from agricultural production, and a large fraction of the population faces chronic hunger and malnutrition. Its dependence on rainfed agriculture is compounded by extreme variations in rainfall, including both droughts and floods, which appear to have become more frequent. As a result, it is considered a region highly vulnerable to future climate changes. At the same time, CMIP5 model projections for the next century show a large spread in precipitation estimates for West Africa, making it impossible to predict even the direction of future precipitation changes for this region. To improve predictions of future changes in the climate of West Africa, a better understanding of past changes, and their causes, is needed. Long climate and vegetation reconstructions, extending back to 5−8 Ma, demonstrate that changes in the climate of West Africa are paced by variations in the Earth’s orbit, and point to a direct influence of changes in low-latitude seasonal insolation on monsoon strength. However, the controls on West African precipitation reflect the influence of a complex set of forcing mechanisms, which can differ regionally in their importance, especially when insolation forcing is weak. During glacial intervals, when insolation changes are muted, millennial-scale dry events occur across North Africa in response to reorganizations of the Atlantic circulation associated with high-latitude climate changes. On centennial timescales, a similar response is evident, with cold conditions during the Little Ice Age associated with a weaker monsoon, and warm conditions during the Medieval Climate Anomaly associated with wetter conditions. Land surface properties play an important role in enhancing changes in the monsoon through positive feedback. In some cases, such as the mid-Holocene, the feedback led to abrupt changes in the monsoon, but the response is complex and spatially heterogeneous. Despite advances made in recent years, our understanding of West African monsoon variability remains limited by the dearth of continuous, high- resolution, and quantitative proxy reconstructions, particularly from terrestrial sites.