The prenatal development of the mammalian neocortex has been analyzed, with the rapid Golgi method, in a variety of experimental animals (hamster, mouse, rat, and cat) and in humans. A new developmental conception of the structural organization of the mammalian neocortex is discussed. Neocortical development begins with the establishment of the primordial plexiform layer (PPL) which precedes and is a prerequisite for the subsequent formation of the cortical plate (CP). The formation of the CP occurs, in its entirety, within the PPL. During its development, three fundamental neuronal events occur: migration, early differentiation, and late maturation. All migrating neurons, travelling on radial glial fibers, reach layer I, develop an apical dendrite, and establish contacts with its elements. These newly differentiated neurons assume similar morphology resembling embryonic pyramidal cells. As such, an early differentiation stage common to all neurons of the CP is established. During the late maturation stage, all CP neurons acquire their specific phenotypic structural and functional features. Only pyramidal neurons retain and expand their original connections with layer I while other neuronal types lose these connections. The pyramidal cell is redefined in developmental terms: the neocortex's pyramidal cell is both structurally and functionally locked into position between layer I and the cortical depth of its soma. During mammalian evolution pyramidal cells are forced to structurally and functionally elongate their apical dendrite outwardly to accommodate an increasing amount of information without losing either their original anchorage to layer I or their cortical depth. This unique property of pyramidal neurons is considered to be a mammalian innovation. Based on these observations, a unifying developmental cytoarchitectonic theory applicable to all mammals is proposed. The theory considers the CP to be a mammalian innovation and to represent a single, stratified, and expanding telencephalic nucleus. The theory envisions the mammalian neocortex as an open biological system capable of progressive expansion by the recruitment and transformation of primitive neurons from upper layer II into pyramidal cells. Hence, the number of pyramidal cell strata increases over the course of mammalian phylogeny. The developmental roles of layer I in the migration of neurons, formation of the CP, unique morphology of pyramidal cells, and overall structural organization of the mammalian neocortex are emphasized. © 1992 Wiley-Liss, Inc.