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The geologically rapid appearance of fossils of modern animal phyla within Cambrian strata is a defining characteristic of the history of life on Earth. However, temporal calibration of the base of the Cambrian Period remains uncertain within millions of years, which has resulted in mounting challenges to the concept of a discrete Cambrian explosion. We present precise zircon U–Pb dates for the lower Wood Canyon Formation, Nevada. These data demonstrate the base of the Cambrian Period, as defined by both ichnofossil biostratigraphy and carbon isotope chemostratigraphy, was younger than 533 Mya, at least 6 My later than currently recognized. This new geochronology condenses previous age models for the Nemakit–Daldynian (early Cambrian) and, integrated with global records, demonstrates an explosive tempo to the early radiation of modern animal phyla.