Crucial questions in the debate on the origin of quintessential human behaviours are whether modern cognition and associated innovations are unique to our species and whether they emerged abruptly, gradually or as the result of a discontinuous process. Three scenarios have been proposed to account for the origin of cultural modernity. The first argues that modern cognition is unique to our species and the consequence of a genetic mutation that took place approximately 50 ka in Africa among already evolved anatomically modern humans. The second posits that cultural modernity emerged gradually in Africa starting at least 200 ka in concert with the origin of our species on that continent. The third states that innovations indicative of modern cognition are not restricted to our species and appear and disappear in Africa and Eurasia between 200 and 40 ka before becoming fully consolidated. We evaluate these scenarios in the light of new evidence from Africa, Asia and Europe and explore the mechanisms that may have led to modern cultures. Such reflections will demonstrate the need for further inquiry into the relationship between climate and demographic/cultural change in order to better understand the mechanisms of cultural transmission at work in Neanderthals and early Homo sapiens populations.