Abstract The vegetation and the climatic context in which the first hominins entered and dispersed in Europe during the Early Pleistocene are reconstructed, using literature review and a new climatic simulation. Both in situ fauna and in situ pollen at the twelve early hominin sites under consideration indicate the occurrence of open landscapes: grasslands or forested steppes. The presence of ancient hominins ( Homo of the erectus group) in Europe is only possible at the transition from glacial to interglacial periods, the full glacial being too cold for them and the transition interglacial to glacial too forested. Glacial–interglacial cycles forced by obliquity showed paralleled vegetation successions, which repeated c. 42 times during the course of the Early Pleistocene (2.58–0.78 Ma), providing 42 narrow windows of opportunity for hominins to disperse into Europe. The climatic conditions of this Early Pleistocene vegetation at glacial-interglacial transitions are compared with a climatic simulation for 9 ka ago without ice sheet, as this time period is so far the best analogue available. The climate at the beginning of the present interglacial displayed a stronger seasonality than now. Forest cover would not have been hampered though, clearly indicating that other factors linked to refugial location and soils leave this period relatively free of forests. Similar situations with an offset between climate and vegetation at the beginning of interglacials repeated themselves throughout the Quaternary and benefitted the early hominins when colonising Europe. The duration of this open phase of vegetation at the glacial–interglacial transition was long enough to allow colonisation from the Levant to the Atlantic. The twelve sites fall within rather narrow ranges of summer precipitation and temperature of the coldest month, suggesting the hominins had only a very low tolerance to climate variability.