The formation of erosion rills and gullies is a critical step in land surface development, but possibilities to study initial unaffected surface development under natural conditions and with well-defined initial and boundary conditions are rare. The objective of this study was to characterize rill network development from ’point zero’ in the artificially-created catchment ‘Hühnerwasser’. To ensure unaffected development, the study was largely restricted to the analysis of remotely-sensed data. We analyzed a series of photogrammetry-based digital elevation models (DEMs) for 10 points in time, over a period of five years and beginning with the initial state. The evolving erosion rill network was quantitatively described based on mapping from aerial photographs. DEMs and rill network maps were combined to specifically analyze the development of morphometry for different parts of the network and to characterize energy dissipation and connectivity. The restriction to remote-sensing data did not allow for analyzing specific processes governing rill network development, nevertheless, two major development phases could be characterized. We observed a phase of growth of the rill network along with variations in drainage patterns during the first two years of development and a subsequent phase of reduction of its area along with comparably stable patterns. Region-specific analysis of morphometry indicates that, besides effects of changing sediment characteristics and vegetation cover development, locally evolving hydro-geomorphic feedback cycles influenced this development. Results show an increasing similarity of overall statistical characteristics (e.g. drainage density) for two parts of the catchment, but a persistent influence of initial conditions on specific rill geometry. The observed development towards higher orderliness and increased connectivity is consistent with experiments and concepts on drainage network evolution across scales; however, we did not observe major influences of rill piracy and cross grading or a reduction of energy dissipation with network development. Copyright © 2013 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.