Hominin evolution took a remarkable pathway, as the foraging strategy extended to large mammalian prey already hunted by a guild of specialist carnivores. How was this possible for a moderately sized ape lacking the formidable anatomical adaptations of these competing 'professional hunters'? The long-standing answer that this was achieved through the elaboration of a new 'cognitive niche' reliant on intelligence and technology is compelling, yet insufficient. Here we present evidence from a diversity of sources supporting the hypothesis that a fuller answer lies in the evolution of a new socio-cognitive niche, the principal components of which include forms of cooperation, egalitarianism, mindreading (also known as 'theory of mind'), language and cultural transmission, that go far beyond the most comparable phenomena in other primates. This cognitive and behavioural complex allows a human hunter-gatherer band to function as a unique and highly competitive predatory organism. Each of these core components of the socio-cognitive niche is distinctive to humans, but primate research has increasingly identified related capacities that permit inferences about significant ancestral cognitive foundations to the five pillars of the human social cognitive niche listed earlier. The principal focus of the present study was to review and integrate this range of recent comparative discoveries.