Approximately 120 Ma major volcanic outgassing on the Ontong Java Plateau resulted in perturbations of the global carbon cycle, in a change from cool to greenhouse climate conditions and in major changes in oceanography leading to widespread deposition of black shales during the early Aptian Oceanic Anoxic Event 1a (OAE1a). However, onset of black-shale deposition was diachronous and prior to OAE1a occurred under specific paleogeographic and paleoceanographic conditions. The goal of this study is to identify paleoceanographic constraints during coolhouse conditions that resulted in pre-OAE1a black-shale deposition and to investigate if and to what extent the short-term orbitally induced climate changes are also recorded in the sedimentary archive. We compared four lower Aptian pelagic sections from the former southern and northern continental margins of the Alpine Tethys Ocean and traced the evolution of carbon isotopes, carbonate and organic carbon content as well as palynofacies before and at the onset of OAE1a. Throughout the studied interval, the sections record frequent precession-controlled changes in carbonate content, which are reflected by limestone-marlstone alternations in the shallowest and most proximal Cismon core and by limestone-black-shale couplets in the deepest Pusiano section. Depth controlled sub-/anoxia is also suggested by the prominent OAE1a black shales, which occurred first in the deeper Pie del Dosso and Roter Sattel sections and only subsequently in the shallower Cismon core. However, contrary to expectations, the deepest Pusiano section exhibits – instead of an earliest onset of prominent OAE1a black shales – only a minor increase in TOC and a decrease in carbonate content. This suggests that the orbitally driven climate changes most strongly influenced water stratification and hence are most prominently expressed in the deepest sections. Conversely, the volcanically induced long-term climate changes seemed to more strongly affect organic matter production, the extension of the oxygen minimum zone and hence had the strongest impact on sections at intermediate depth.