Quantification of modern pollen rain–vegetation–climate relationships in New Zealand has been complicated by human destruction of at least 75% of the original forest cover since ca. 750 years BP, causing contemporary pollen rain over large areas to bear little resemblance to the pre-human vegetation. We use a pre-deforestation pollen database to circumvent this complication. The relationships between the pre-deforestation pollen assemblages and six climatic variables were explored using principal components analysis and constrained regressions (redundancy analyses). Quantitative estimates of the most significant climate variable (mean annual temperature) were made at seven lowland to montane fossil pollen sites from throughout New Zealand using the modern analogue technique and a transfer function. These showed an initial increase in mean annual temperature after 18 000 cal. yr BP, a cooling at the time of the Antarctic Cold Reversal (centred on 13 500 cal. yr BP) and continuation of warming from ca. 12 000 cal. yr BP across the Younger Dryas chronozone, reaching a Holocene thermal optimum that may have been between 1.5 and 3°C warmer than present and lasted from 9000 to 7000 cal. yr BP depending on the site. Cooling to present-day temperatures was well advanced by 4000–3000 cal. yr BP. Copyright © 2007 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.