The use of red iron-based earth pigments, or ochre, is a key component of early symbolic behaviours for anatomically modern humans and possibly Neanderthals. We present the first ochre provenance study in Central Europe showing long-term selection strategies by inhabitants of cave sites in south-western Germany during the Upper Palaeolithic (43–14.5 ka). Ochre artefacts from Hohle Fels, Geißenklösterle and Vogelherd, and local and extra-local sources, were investigated using neutron activation analysis (NAA), X-ray diffraction (XRD) and scanning electron microscopy (SEM). The results show that local ochre sources were continuously and systematically accessed for c.29 500 years, with periodic events of long-distance (about > 300 km) ochre acquisition during the Aurignacian (c.35–43 ka), suggesting higher mobility than previously suspected. The results reveal previously unknown long-term, complex spatio-temporal behavioural patterns during the earliest presence of Homo sapiens in Europe.