How the immense population of neurons that constitute the human cerebral neocortex is generated from progenitors lining the cerebral ventricle and then distributed to appropriate layers of distinctive cytoarchitectonic areas can be explained by the radial unit hypothesis. According to this hypothesis, the ependymal layer of the embryonic cerebral ventricle consists of proliferative units that provide a proto-map of prospective cytoarchitectonic areas. The output of the proliferative units is translated via glial guides to the expanding cortex in the form of ontogenetic columns, whose final number for each area can be modified through interaction with afferent input. Data obtained through various advanced neurobiological techniques, including electron microscopy, immunocytochemistry, [3H]thymidine and receptor autoradiography, retrovirus gene transfer, neural transplants, and surgical or genetic manipulation of cortical development, furnish new details about the kinetics of cell proliferation, their lineage relationships, and phenotypic expression that favor this hypothesis. The radial unit model provides a framework for understanding cerebral evolution, epigenetic regulation of the parcellation of cytoarchitectonic areas, and insight into the pathogenesis of certain cortical disorders in humans.