The emergence and expansion of animal life on Earth represents a dramatic shift in the structure and complexity of the biosphere. A lack of firm constraints on surface oxygen levels during the mid-Proterozoic has resulted in heated debate as to whether the rise and earliest diversification of animals was directly linked to a change in environmental oxygen levels or, instead, simply reflects the timing of innovations in gene expression and developmental regulation and was independent of a direct environmental trigger. Here, we present chromium (Cr) isotope data from marine black shales that provide evidence for minimal Cr oxidation throughout the mid-Proterozoic leading up to the diversification of eukaryotes and the rise of animals during the late Neoproterozoic. This observation requires very low background oxygen levels (<1% of present atmospheric levels). Accepting previously proposed estimates of pO2 levels needed to induce Cr isotope fractionation, our data provide support for the persistence of an Earth system in which baseline atmospheric pO2 would have been low enough to inhibit the diversification of animals until ca. 800 Ma. More generally, evidence for a delayed rise of atmospheric oxygen strongly suggests that environmental factors have played a fundamental role in controlling the emergence and expansion of complex life on Earth.