In order to evaluate potential effects of tectonics and climate change on the behaviour of the axial Rio Grande in the Rio Grande rift, a 16·5 km stretch of modern floodplain and Holocene terraces were mapped in the tectonically active Palomas half graben, south-central New Mexico, USA. In addition, 51 cores and natural exposures were logged and 20 radiocarbon dates were obtained from charcoal, bulk organic matter, mollusc shells and pedogenic calcite. The Holocene alluvium comprises four terraces above the modern floodplain, each of which formed by a period of river incision followed by stability and renewed floodplain construction to a level below that of the previous terraces. Estimated times of incision between Terraces I and II, II and III, and III and IV are after 12 400, 8040 to 5310, and 760 to 550 yr bp, respectively, whereas the incision between Terrace IV and the modern floodplain occurred within the last 260 years. Although there is some evidence for tectonic control on river behaviour in the southern part of the basin, terrace formation is interpreted as being related to climate change, with periods of incision corresponding to times of increased aridity and low sediment/water discharge ratio in the Rio Grande. This process may have resulted from a reduction in intensity and magnitude of summer storms which supply sediment to the axial river, coupled with an increase in spring discharge peak caused by snowmelt in upstream mountain catchments.