Abstract Marine records of the Paleocene indicate a series of hyperthermal events characterized by significant climatic and carbon cycle variability, but there are few comparable continental records. The mid-Paleocene biotic event (MPBE) is a recently described interval defined by a rapid negative carbon isotope excursion and major short-term changes in marine ecosystems, but it is as yet unclear whether the event was globally important. Here we present the first terrestrial paleoenvironmental record of the MPBE based on paleosols that document rapid and short-lived increases in temperature and precipitation and resultant shifts in plant assemblages concomitant with substantial carbon isotope excursions. The new record indicates that carbon cycle changes during the early late Paleocene may have resulted in a two-stage transient hyperthermal event that caused a significant perturbation to both the regional climate and terrestrial ecology of South America in addition to the major biotic event (MPBE) previously recognized in marine records. Overall, this suggests that the MPBE may have been a global climate event with far-reaching environmental impacts in both the marine and terrestrial realms.