This paper introduces the aims and scope of the RESET project (RESponse of humans to abrupt Environmental Transitions), a programme of research funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (UK) between 2008 and 2013; it also provides the context and rationale for papers included in a special volume of Quaternary Science Reviews that report some of the project's findings. RESET examined the chronological and correlation methods employed to establish causal links between the timing of abrupt environmental transitions (AETs) on the one hand, and of human dispersal and development on the other, with a focus on the Middle and Upper Palaeolithic periods. The period of interest is the Last Glacial cycle and the early Holocene (c. 100-8 ka), during which time a number of pronounced AETs occurred. A long-running topic of debate is the degree to which human history in Europe and the Mediterranean region during the Palaeolithic was shaped by these AETs, but this has proved difficult to assess because of poor dating control. In an attempt to move the science forward, RESET examined the potential that tephra isochrons, and in particular non-visible ash layers (cryptotephras), might offer for synchronising palaeo-records with a greater degree of finesse. New tephrostratigraphical data generated by the project augment previously-established tephra frameworks for the region, and underpin a more evolved tephra 'lattice' that links palaeo-records between Greenland, the European mainland, sub-marine sequences in the Mediterranean and North Africa. The paper also outlines the significance of other contributions to this special volume: collectively, these illustrate how the lattice was constructed, how it links with cognate tephra research in Europe and elsewhere, and how the evidence of tephra isochrons is beginning to challenge long-held views about the impacts of environmental change on humans during the Palaeolithic.