A link between climate change and human evolution during the Pleistocene has often been assumed but rarely tested. At the macro-evolutionary level Foley showed for hominids that extinction, rather than speciation, correlates with environmental change as recorded in the deep sea record. Our aim is to examine this finding at a smaller scale and with high-resolution environmental and archaeological archives. Our interest is in changing patterns of human dispersal under shifting Pleistocene climates during the last glacial period in Europe. Selecting this time frame and region allows us to observe how two hominid taxa, Neanderthals and Crô-Magnons, adapted to climatic conditions during oxygen isotope stage 3. These taxa are representative of two hominid adaptive radiations, termed terrestrial and aquatic, which exhibited different habitat preferences but similar tolerances to climatic factors. Their response to changing ecological conditions was predicated upon their ability to extend their societies in space and time. We examine this difference further using a database of all available radiocarbon determinations from western Europe in the late glacial. These data act as proxies for population history, and in particular the expansion and contraction of regional populations as climate changed rapidly. Independent assessment of these processes is obtained from the genetic history of Europeans. The results indicate that climate affects population contraction rather than expansion. We discuss the consequences for genetic and cultural diversity which led to the legacy of the Ice Age: a single hominid species, globally distributed.