Bar and island morphodynamics in the world’s largest anabranching rivers are investigated using a new numerical model of hydrodynamics, sediment transport, bank erosion and floodplain development,operating over periods of several hundred years. Simulated channel morphology is compared to that of natural rivers and shown to be realistic, both in terms of the statistical characteristics of channel width, depth and bar shape distributions, and mechanisms of unit bar, compound bar and island evolution. Results demonstrate that bar and island stability may be sensitive to hydrologic regime, because greater variability in flood magnitude encourages the formation of emergent bars that can be stabilized by vegetation colonization. Simulations illustrate a range of mechanisms of unit bar generation that are linked to local bed and/or bank instabilities. This relationship may explain the reduced frequency of unit bars observed in some large anabranching rivers that are characterized by stable vegetated islands and slow rates of channel change. Model results suggest that the degree to which sand-sized bed material is carried in suspension likely represents an important control on bar morphodynamics and channel network evolution, because of its influence on sand transport direction. Consequently, differences in the partitioning of the total sand load between bedload and suspension may provide a partial explanation for contrasting styles of anabranching in the world’s largest sand-bed rivers. These results highlight a need for spatially distibuted flow and sediment transport datasets from large rivers, in order to support improved parameterizations of sand transport mechanics in morphodynamic models.