Extreme Late Quaternary climatic events, sometimes of considerable continental extent, are being proposed as major contributors to ancestral human behaviour, particularly migration, in Africa. Most recently, a catastrophic drought in the Afro-Asian monsoon region has been proposed for 16 000–17 000 years ago, driven by global impacts of the Heinrich event 1 (H1), with potentially significant consequences for Palaeolithic cultures. We provide a new analysis of the assertion and find, on examination of a wide set of palaeoenvironmental records, that the scale and extent of the proposed drought is not supported. While some parts of the African tropics, close to the equator, do appear dry at this time, data for the tropics as a whole suggest markedly variable terrestrial conditions, with some environmental systems experiencing very positive hydrological excursions during H1. We contend that in the quest for evidence of climate drivers of ancestral human behaviour, the variability associated with spatially and temporally complex climatic conditions is a significant factor in itself. Copyright © 2011 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.