The transport of moisture in the tropics is a critical process for the global energy budget and on geologic timescales, has markedly influenced continental landscapes, migratory pathways, and biological evolution. Here we present a continuous, first-of-its-kind 1.3-My record of continental hydroclimate and lake-level variability derived from drill core data from Lake Malawi, East Africa (9–15° S). Over the Quaternary, we observe dramatic shifts in effective moisture, resulting in large-scale changes in one of the world’s largest lakes and most diverse freshwater ecosystems. Results show evidence for 24 lake level drops of more than 200 m during the Late Quaternary, including 15 lowstands when water levels were more than 400 m lower than modern. A dramatic shift is observed at the Mid-Pleistocene Transition (MPT), consistent with far-field climate forcing, which separates vastly different hydroclimate regimes before and after ∼800,000 years ago. Before 800 ka, lake levels were lower, indicating a climate drier than today, and water levels changed frequently. Following the MPT high-amplitude lake level variations dominate the record. From 800 to 100 ka, a deep, often overfilled lake occupied the basin, indicating a wetter climate, but these highstands were interrupted by prolonged intervals of extreme drought. Periods of high lake level are observed during times of high eccentricity. The extreme hydroclimate variability exerted a profound influence on the Lake Malawi endemic cichlid fish species flock; the geographically extensive habitat reconfiguration provided novel ecological opportunities, enabling new populations to differentiate rapidly to distinct species.