The Sahara Desert is the largest source of mineral dust in the world 1. Emissions of African dust increased sharply in the early 1970s (ref. 2), a change that has been attributed mainly to drought in the Sahara/Sahel region2 caused by changes in the global distribution of sea surface temperature3,4. The human contribution to land degradation and dust mobilization in this region remains poorly understood 5-11, owing to the paucity of data that would allow the identification of long-term trends in desertification12. Direct measurements of airborne African dust concentrations only became available in the mid-1960s from a station on Barbados2 and subsequently from satellite imagery since the late 1970s: they do not cover the onset of commercial agriculture in the Sahel region ∼170 years ago 11,13,14. Here we construct a 3,200-year record of dust deposition off northwest Africa by investigating the chemistry and grain-size distribution of terrigenous sediments deposited at a marine site located directly under the West African dust plume. With the help of our dust record and a proxy record for West African precipitation15 we find that, on the century scale, dust deposition is related to precipitation in tropical West Africa until the seventeenth century. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, a sharp increase in dust deposition parallels the advent of commercial agriculture in the Sahel region. Our findings suggest that human-induced dust emissions from the Sahel region have contributed to the atmospheric dust load for about 200 years.