The transition between the Proterozoic and Phanerozoic eons, beginning 542 million years (Myr) ago, is distinguished by the diversification of multicellular animals and by their acquisition of mineralized skeletons during the Cambrian period. Considerable progress has been made in documenting and more precisely correlating biotic patterns in the Neoproterozoic-Cambrian fossil record with geochemical and physical environmental perturbations, but the mechanisms responsible for those perturbations remain uncertain. Here we use new stratigraphic and geochemical data to show that early Palaeozoic marine sediments deposited approximately 540-480 Myr ago record both an expansion in the area of shallow epicontinental seas and anomalous patterns of chemical sedimentation that are indicative of increased oceanic alkalinity and enhanced chemical weathering of continental crust. These geochemical conditions were caused by a protracted period of widespread continental denudation during the Neoproterozoic followed by extensive physical reworking of soil, regolith and basement rock during the first continental-scale marine transgression of the Phanerozoic. The resultant globally occurring stratigraphic surface, which in most regions separates continental crystalline basement rock from much younger Cambrian shallow marine sedimentary deposits, is known as the Great Unconformity. Although Darwin and others have interpreted this widespread hiatus in sedimentation on the continents as a failure of the geologic record, this palaeogeomorphic surface represents a unique physical environmental boundary condition that affected seawater chemistry during a time of profound expansion of shallow marine habitats. Thus, the formation of the Great Unconformity may have been an environmental trigger for the evolution of biomineralization and the `Cambrian explosion' of ecologic and taxonomic diversity following the Neoproterozoic emergence of animals.