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The onset of walking is a fundamental milestone in motor development of humans and other mammals, yet little is known about what factors determine its timing. Hoofed animals start walking within hours after birth, rodents and small carnivores require days or weeks, and nonhuman primates take months and humans approximately a year to achieve this locomotor skill. Here we show that a key to the explanation for these differences is that time to the onset of walking counts from conception and not from birth, indicating that mechanisms underlying motor development constitute a functional continuum from pre- to postnatal life. In a multiple-regression model encompassing 24 species representative of 11 extant orders of placental mammals that habitually walk on the ground, including humans, adult brain mass accounted for 94% of variance in time to walking onset postconception. A dichotomous variable reflecting species differences in functional limb anatomy accounted for another 3.8% of variance. The model predicted the timing of walking onset in humans with high accuracy, showing that this milestone in human motor development occurs no later than expected given the mass of the adult human brain, which in turn reflects the duration of its ontogenetic development. The timing of motor development appears to be highly conserved in mammalian evolution as the ancestors of some of the species in the sample presented here diverged in phylogenesis as long as 100 million years ago. Fundamental patterns of early human life history may therefore have evolved before the evolution of primates.