Large, well-documented wildfires have recently generated worldwide attention, and raised concerns about the impacts of humans and climate change on wildfire regimes. However, comparatively little is known about the patterns and driving forces of global fire activity before the twentieth century. Here we compile sedimentary charcoal records spanning six continents to document trends in both natural and anthropogenic biomass burning for the past two millennia. We find that global biomass burning declined from AD 1 to approx1750, before rising sharply between 1750 and 1870. Global burning then declined abruptly after 1870. The early decline in biomass burning occurred in concert with a global cooling trend and despite a rise in the human population. We suggest the subsequent rise was linked to increasing human influences, such as population growth and land-use changes. Our compilation suggests that the final decline occurred despite increasing air temperatures and population. We attribute this reduction in the amount of biomass burned over the past 150 years to the global expansion of intensive grazing, agriculture and fire management.