The stiff human foot enables an efficient push-off when walking or running, and was critical for the evolution of bipedalism1–6. The uniquely arched morphology of the human midfoot is thought to stiffen it5–9, whereas other primates have flat feet that bend severely in the midfoot7,10,11. However, the relationship between midfoot geometry and stiffness remains debated in foot biomechanics12,13, podiatry14,15 and palaeontology4–6. These debates centre on the medial longitudinal arch5,6 and have not considered whether stiffness is affected by the second, transverse tarsal arch of the human foot16. Here we show that the transverse tarsal arch, acting through the inter-metatarsal tissues, is responsible for more than 40% of the longitudinal stiffness of the foot. The underlying principle resembles a floppy currency note that stiffens considerably when it curls transversally. We derive a dimensionless curvature parameter that governs the stiffness contribution of the transverse tarsal arch, demonstrate its predictive power using mechanical models of the foot and find its skeletal correlate in hominin feet. In the foot, the material properties of the inter-metatarsal tissues and the mobility of the metatarsals may additionally influence the longitudinal stiffness of the foot and thus the curvature–stiffness relationship of the transverse tarsal arch. By analysing fossils, we track the evolution of the curvature parameter among extinct hominins and show that a human-like transverse arch was a key step in the evolution of human bipedalism that predates the genus Homo by at least 1.5 million years. This renewed understanding of the foot may improve the clinical treatment of flatfoot disorders, the design of robotic feet and the study of foot function in locomotion.