Abstract Investigations into how climate change shaped human evolution have begun to focus on environmental dynamics, i.e., the nature and tempo of climate and landscape variability, an approach that de-emphasizes static reconstructions of early hominin habitats. The interaction among insolation cycles is especially apparent in the paleoenvironmental records of the East African Rift System, where the longest records of human evolution are preserved. However, environmental indicators such as deep-sea oxygen isotopes, terrestrial dust flux, paleosol carbon isotopes, and lake sediments do not point consistently to any simple trend or climate driver of evolutionary change. Comparison of environmental indicators cautions against an exclusive focus on any given end-member of environmental fluctuation (driest or wettest, warmest or coolest), and argues for the impact of the entire range of variability in shaping evolutionary change. A model of alternating high and low climate variability for tropical Africa further implies that specific environmental indicators reflect different aspects of East African environmental dynamics. The model may thus help reconcile some of the conflicting interpretations about the environmental drivers of hominin evolution. First and last appearances of hominin lineages, benchmark biogeographic events, and the emergence of key adaptations and capacities to alter the surroundings are consistently concentrated in the predicted longest intervals of high climate variability. The view that emerges is that important changes in stone technology, sociality, and other aspects of hominin behavior can now be understood as adaptive responses to heightened habitat instability.