The expansion of Homo sapiens across Eurasia marked a major milestone in human evolution that would eventually lead to our species being found across every continent. Current models propose that these expansions occurred only during episodes of warm climate, based on age correlations between archaeological and climatic records. Here, we obtain direct evidence for the temperatures faced by some of these humans through the oxygen isotope analysis of faunal remains from Bacho Kiro Cave, Bulgaria, the earliest clear record of H. sapiens in Europe. The results indicate that humans ∼45,000 years ago experienced subarctic climates with far colder climatic conditions than previously suggested. This demonstrates that the early presence of H. sapiens in Europe was not contingent on warm climates. Our results necessitate the revision of key models of human expansion and highlight the need for a less deterministic role of climate in the study of our evolutionary history.