Africa’s Middle Stone Age preserves sporadic evidence for novel behaviours among early modern humans, prompting a range of questions about the influence of social and environmental factors on patterns of human behavioural evolution. Here we document a suite of novel adaptations dating approximately 92–80 thousand years before the present at the archaeological site Varsche Rivier 003 (VR003), located in southern Africa’s arid Succulent Karoo biome. Distinctive innovations include the production of ostrich eggshell artefacts, long-distance transportation of marine molluscs and systematic use of heat shatter in stone tool production, none of which occur in coeval assemblages at sites in more humid, well-studied regions immediately to the south. The appearance of these novelties at VR003 corresponds with a period of reduced regional wind strength and enhanced summer rainfall, and all of them disappear with increasing winter rainfall dominance after 80 thousand years before the present, following which a pattern of technological similarity emerges at sites throughout the broader region. The results indicate complex and environmentally contingent processes of innovation and cultural transmission in southern Africa during the Middle Stone Age.