The initial occurrence of desert landscape or eolian sand dunes is thought to have occurred long before the Pleistocene, and desertification was subsequently enhanced under cold, dusty glacial conditions. However, when and how the desert landscape persisted during both glacial and interglacial periods, defined as “permanent” desert here, remain elusive. Here, we present carbonate carbon isotope and grain-size records from the Tarim Basin, western China, revealing a detailed desertification history for the Taklimakan Desert. Our records demonstrate that after desiccation of episodic lakes at ca. 4.9 Ma, alternations of eolian sand dunes and fluvial and playa-like conditions persisted for a long period until 0.7 Ma in the Tarim Basin. The onset of permanent desert landscape around 0.7–0.5 Ma occurred concurrently with the climatic reorganization across the mid-Pleistocene transition. The occurrence of mountain glaciers on the Tibetan Plateau and atmospheric circulation changes may have controlled the formation and extreme aridification of the permanent desert in inland Asia since the mid-Pleistocene transition.

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