The retreat of the East Antarctic ice sheet at the end of the last glacial period has been attributed to both sea-level rise and warming of the ocean at the margin of the ice sheet, but it has been challenging to test these hypotheses. Given the lack of constraints on the timing of retreat, it has been difficult to evaluate whether the East Antarctic ice sheet contributed to meltwater pulse 1a, an abrupt sea-level rise of approximately 20 m that occurred about 14,700 years ago. Here we use terrestrial exposure ages and marine sedimentological analyses to show that ice retreat in Mac. Robertson Land, East Antarctica, initiated about 14,000 years ago, became widespread about 12,000 years ago, and was completed by about 7,000 years ago. We use two models of different complexities to assess the forcing of the retreat. Our simulations suggest that, although the initial stage of retreat may have been forced by sea-level rise, the majority of the ice loss resulted from ocean warming at the onset of the Holocene epoch. In light of our age model we conclude that the East Antarctic ice sheet is unlikely to have been the source of meltwater pulse 1a, and, on the basis of our simulations, suggest that Antarctic ice sheets made an insignificant contribution to eustatic sea-level rise at this time.