For most of human existence on this planet over the past 2 million years, sea level has been substantially lower than the present and has swung through changes of more than 100 m in response to the glacial–interglacial climatic cycle. At a time when modern society is increasingly concerned about the potentially destructive impact over the coming decades of a sea-level rise of 3 m or so, it is sobering to realize that prehistoric societies across the world faced a sea-level rise between about 16,000 and 6000 years ago of 130 m (Fig. 1). That change of course was spread over many human generations and many millennia, so that the full effects would not have been experienced within a single human lifetime. Nevertheless, the long-term cumulative effect of sea level rise and loss of territory would have been dramatic. On a world scale, substantial areas of continental shelf were successively exposed, creating potentially attractive territories for human settlement and migration and land connections between major land masses, and then removed again by sea level rise (Fig. 2). In Europe, during the last glacial period, the total land mass of the continent was extended by as much as 40% at the maximum marine regression (Fig. 3), with a corresponding loss of land when sea levels rose as the continental glaciers melted into the oceans. In some parts of the sea-level cycle, and especially in regions where the slope of the continental shelf is shallow, the effects would have been noticeable and sometimes dramatic within the lifetimes and memories of the people affected. Moreover, these changes have taken place repeatedly over the long Pleistocene history of human existence.