In order to understand the response of a continental forearc to changes in subduction-zone geodynamics, we constructed a high-resolution chronostratigraphic cross section across the Central Andean forearc of northern Chile (21°–24°S). The tectono-stratigraphic development of the forearc differs from established models. No relationship was found between changes in rate of relative plate convergence and amount and style of deformation. Forearc response to continual compression since the Oligocene has been uplift and segmentation into discrete tectono-stratigraphic zones. From west to east, these zones are the extensional Coastal Cordillera, the extensional and/or transtensional Central depression, and the transpressional and/or compressional Precordillera-Preandean depression. Each area has recorded almost continuous sedimentation from Oligocene (?Eocene) time to the present day. Accommodation space has been generated by basin-margin uplift rather than active subsidence. We propose a model in which uplift of the leading edge of the South American plate is driven by subcrustal accretion of material removed at the trench by subduction erosion. Uplift and subduction erosion result in the trenchward gravitational collapse of the plate edge. The tectono-stratigraphic complexity exhibited within the Central Andean forearc is likely to be representative of Cordilleran-type margins and would be difficult to recognize in an ancient continental forearc.