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The oceans at the start of the Neoproterozoic Era (1,000–541 million years ago, Ma) were dominantly anoxic, but may have become progressively oxygenated, coincident with the rise of animal life. However, the control that oxygen exerted on the development of early animal ecosystems remains unclear, as previous research has focussed on the identification of fully anoxic or oxic conditions, rather than intermediate redox levels. Here we report anomalous cerium enrichments preserved in carbonate rocks across bathymetric basin transects from nine localities of the Nama Group, Namibia (∼550–541 Ma). In combination with Fe-based redox proxies, these data suggest that low-oxygen conditions occurred in a narrow zone between well-oxygenated surface waters and fully anoxic deep waters. Although abundant in well-oxygenated environments, early skeletal animals did not occupy oxygen impoverished regions of the shelf, demonstrating that oxygen availability (probably >10 μM) was a key requirement for the development of early animal-based ecosystems.