The nematode Caenorhabditis elegans is central to research in molecular, cell and developmental biology, but nearly all of this research has been conducted on a single strain of C. elegans. Little is known about the population genomic and evolutionary history of this species. We characterized C. elegans genetic variation using high-throughput selective sequencing of a worldwide collection of 200 wild strains and identified 41,188 SNPs. Notably, C. elegans genome variation is dominated by a set of commonly shared haplotypes on four of its six chromosomes, each spanning many megabases. Population genetic modeling showed that this pattern was generated by chromosome-scale selective sweeps that have reduced variation worldwide; at least one of these sweeps probably occurred in the last few hundred years. These sweeps, which we hypothesize to be a result of human activity, have drastically reshaped the global C. elegans population in the recent past.