Evolution of the mixed and shortgrass prairie of the North American Great Plains is poorly understood because of limited proxies available for environmental interpretations. Buried soils in the Great Plains provide a solution to the problem because they are widespread both spatially and temporally with their organic reservoirs serving as a link to the plants than once grew on them. Through stable carbon isotopic analysis of soil organic carbon (dC), the percent carbon from C4 plants (%C4) can be ascertained. Because C4 plants are primarily warm season grasses responding positively to summer temperature, their representation has the added advantage of serving as a climate indicator. To better understand grassland and climate dynamics in the Great Plains during the last 12 ka (ka 1⁄4 1000 radiocarbon years) we developed an isotopic standardization technique by: determining the difference in buried soil dC and modern soil dC expected for that latitude (DdC), and transferring the DdC to D%C4 (% C4) using mass balance calculations. Our analysis reveals two isotopic stages in the mixed and shortgrass prairie of the Great Plains based on trends in D%C4. In response to orbital forcing mechanisms, D%C4 was persistently below modern in the Great Plains between 12 and 6.7 ka (isotopic stage II) evidently because of the cooling effect of the Laurentide ice sheet and proglacial lakes in northern latitudes, and glacial meltwater pulses cooling the Gulf of Mexico and North Atlantic Ocean. The D%C4 after 6.7 ka (isotopic stage I) increased to modern levels as conditioned by the outflow of warm, moist air from the Gulf of Mexico and dry incursions from the west that produced periodic drought. At the millennial-scale, time series analysis demonstrates that D%C4 oscillated with 0.6 and 1.8 ka periodicities, possibly governed by variations in solar irradiance. Our buried soil isotopic record correlates well with other environmental proxy from the Great Plains and surrounding regions. & 2008 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.