Wetlands have long been drained for human use, thereby strongly affecting greenhouse gas fluxes, flood control, nutrient cycling and biodiversity1,2. Nevertheless, the global extent of natural wetland loss remains remarkably uncertain3. Here, we reconstruct the spatial distribution and timing of wetland loss through conversion to seven human land uses between 1700 and 2020, by combining national and subnational records of drainage and conversion with land-use maps and simulated wetland extents. We estimate that 3.4þinspacemillionþinspacekm2 (confidence interval 2.9–3.8) of inland wetlands have been lost since 1700, primarily for conversion to croplands. This net loss of 21% (confidence interval 16–23%) of global wetland area is lower than that suggested previously by extrapolations of data disproportionately from high-loss regions. Wetland loss has been concentrated in Europe, the United States and China, and rapidly expanded during the mid-twentieth century. Our reconstruction elucidates the timing and land-use drivers of global wetland losses, providing an improved historical baseline to guide assessment of wetland loss impact on Earth system processes, conservation planning to protect remaining wetlands and prioritization of sites for wetland restoration4.