The origin of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa has been traced to the likely confluence of a virus, a bat, a two-year-old child and an underequipped rural health centre. Understanding how these factors may have combined in south-eastern Guinea near the end of 2013 requires us to rethink elements of the familiar Ebola ‘outbreak narrative’, as propagated by the international media, in a deeper political, economic and ecological context. This includes examining the social, ecological and epidemiological evidence and questioning long-held and misplaced assumptions about rural resource users, rural livelihoods, deforestation and environmental change, and the role of development in both the current crisis and in realising a more resilient future. Emerging research indicates that demography, patterns of land use and of human-wildlife interaction are all implicated in zoonotic ‘spillover’ events, but cannot be generalised across cases and localities. This is because these patterns are highly contextual and variable regionally and locally due to divergent and dynamic sociopolitical, economic and ecological histories.