The Cambrian explosion, the rapid appearance of most animal phyla in the geological record, occurred concurrently with bottom seawater oxygenation. Whether this oxygenation event was triggered through enhanced nutrient supply and organic carbon burial forced by increased continental weathering, or by species engaging in ecosystem engineering, remains a fundamental yet unresolved question. Here we provide evidence for several simultaneous developments that took place over the Ediacaran–Cambrian transition: expansion of siliceous sponges, decrease of the dissolved organic carbon pool, enhanced organic carbon burial, increased phosphorus removal and seawater oxygenation. This evidence is based on silicon and carbon stable isotopes, Ge/Si ratios, REE-geochemistry and redox-sensitive elements in a chert-shale succession from the Yangtze Platform, China. According to this reconstruction, sponges have initiated seawater oxygenation by redistributing organic carbon oxidation through filtering suspended organic matter from seawater. The resulting increase in dissolved oxygen levels potentially triggered the diversification of eumetazoans.