Anatomically modern humans originated in Africa around 200 thousand years ago (ka)1-4. Although some of the oldest skeletal remains suggest an eastern African origin2, southern Africa is home to contemporary populations that represent the earliest branch of human genetic phylogeny5,6. Here we generate, to our knowledge, the largest resource for the poorly represented and deepest-rooting maternal L0 mitochondrial DNA branch (198 new mitogenomes for a total of 1,217 mitogenomes) from contemporary southern Africans and show the geographical isolation of L0d1'2, L0k and L0g KhoeSan descendants south of the Zambezi river in Africa. By establishing mitogenomic timelines, frequencies and dispersals, we show that the L0 lineage emerged within the residual Makgadikgadi-Okavango palaeo-wetland of southern Africa7, approximately 200 ka (95% confidence interval, 240-165 ka). Genetic divergence points to a sustained 70,000-year-long existence of the L0 lineage before an out-of-homeland northeast-southwest dispersal between 130 and 110 ka. Palaeo-climate proxy and model data suggest that increased humidity opened green corridors, first to the northeast then to the southwest. Subsequent drying of the homeland corresponds to a sustained effective population size (L0k), whereas wet-dry cycles and probable adaptation to marine foraging allowed the southwestern migrants to achieve population growth (L0d1'2), as supported by extensive south-coastal archaeological evidence8-10. Taken together, we propose a southern African origin of anatomically modern humans with sustained homeland occupation before the first migrations of people that appear to have been driven by regional climate changes.