Warm intervals within the Pliocene epoch (5.33-2.58 million years ago) were characterized by global temperatures comparable to those predicted for the end of this century(1) and atmospheric CO2 concentrations similar to today(2-4). Estimates for global sea level highstands during these times(5) imply possible retreat of the East Antarctic ice sheet, but ice-proximal evidence from the Antarctic margin is scarce. Here we present new data from Pliocene marine sediments recovered offshore of Adelie Land, East Antarctica, that reveal dynamic behaviour of the East Antarctic ice sheet in the vicinity of the low-lying Wilkes Subglacial Basin during times of past climatic warmth. Sedimentary sequences deposited between 5.3 and 3.3 million years ago indicate increases in Southern Ocean surface water productivity, associated with elevated circum-Antarctic temperatures. The geochemical provenance of detrital material deposited during these warm intervals suggests active erosion of continental bedrock from within the Wilkes Subglacial Basin, an area today buried beneath the East Antarctic ice sheet. We interpret this erosion to be associated with retreat of the ice sheet margin several hundreds of kilometres inland and conclude that the East Antarctic ice sheet was sensitive to climatic warmth during the Pliocene.