FOSSIL pollen, ancient lake sediments and archaeological evidence from Africa indicate that the Sahel and Sahara regions were considerably wetter than today during the early to middle Holocene period, about 12,000 to 5,000 years ago. Vegetation associated with the modern Sahara/Sahel boundary was about 5°farther north, and there were more and larger lakes between 15 and 30°N. Simulations with climate models have shown that these wetter conditions were probably caused by changes in Earth's orbital parameters that increased the amplitude of the seasonal cycle of solar radiation in the Northern Hemisphere, enhanced the land-ocean temperature contrast, and thereby strengthened the African summer monsoon. However, these simulations underestimated the consequent monsoon enhancement as inferred from palaeorecords. Here we use a climate model to show that changes in vegetation and soil may have increased the climate response to orbital forcing. We find that replacing today's orbital forcing with that of the mid-Holocene increases summer precipitation by 12% between 15 and 22°N. Replacing desert with grassland, and desert soil with more loamy soil, further enhances the summer precipitation (by 6 and 10% respectively), giving a total precipitation increase of 28%. When the simulated climate changes are applied to a biome model, vegetation becomes established north of the current Sahara/Sahel boundary, thereby shrinking the area of the Sahara by 11% owing to orbital forcing alone, and by 20% owing to the combined influence of orbital forcing and the prescribed vegetation and soil changes. The inclusion of the vegetation and soil feedbacks thus brings the model simulations and palaeovegetation observations into closer agreement.