The Earth's climate abruptly warmed by 5-8 °C during the Palaeocene-Eocene thermal maximum (PETM), about 55.5 million years ago**1,2. This warming was associated with a massive addition of carbon to the ocean-atmosphere system, but estimates of the Earth systemresponse to this perturbation are complicated by widely varying estimates of the duration of carbon release, which range from less than a year to tens of thousands of years. In addition the source of the carbon, and whether it was released as a single injection or in several pulses, remains the subject of debate**2-4. Here we present a new high-resolution carbon isotope record from terrestrial deposits in the Bighorn Basin (Wyoming, USA) spanning the PETM, and interpret the record using a carbon-cycle boxmodel of the ocean-atmosphere-biosphere system.Our record shows that the beginning of the PETMis characterized by not one but two distinct carbon release events, separated by a recovery to background values. To reproduce this pattern, our model requires two discrete pulses of carbon released directly to the atmosphere, at average rates exceeding 0.9 Pg C yr**-1, with the first pulse lasting fewer than 2,000 years.