The Ethiopian Rift Valley hosts the longest record of human co-existence with volcanoes on Earth, however, current understanding of the magnitude and timing of large explosive eruptions in this region is poor. Detailed records of volcanism are essential for interpreting the palaeoenvironments occupied by our hominin ancestors; and also for evaluating the volcanic hazards posed to the 10 million people currently living within this active rift zone. Here we use new geochronological evidence to suggest that a 200 km-long segment of rift experienced a major pulse of explosive volcanic activity between 320 and 170 ka. During this period, at least four distinct volcanic centres underwent large-volume (>10 km(3)) caldera-forming eruptions, and eruptive fluxes were elevated five times above the average eruption rate for the past 700 ka. We propose that such pulses of episodic silicic volcanism would have drastically remodelled landscapes and ecosystems occupied by early hominin populations.