The development of modernity in early human populations has been linked to pulsed phases of technological and behavioural innovation within the Middle Stone Age of South Africa. However, the trigger for these intermittent pulses of technological innovation is an enigma. Here we show that, contrary to some previous studies, the occurrence of innovation was tightly linked to abrupt climate change. Major innovational pulses occurred at times when South African climate changed rapidly towards more humid conditions, while northern sub-Saharan Africa experienced widespread droughts, as the Northern Hemisphere entered phases of extreme cooling. These millennial-scale teleconnections resulted from the bipolar seesaw behaviour of the Atlantic Ocean related to changes in the ocean circulation. These conditions led to humid pulses in South Africa and potentially to the creation of favourable environmental conditions. This strongly implies that innovational pulses of early modern human behaviour were climatically influenced and linked to the adoption of refugia. © 2013 Macmillan Publishers Limited. All rights reserved.