Ectodermal placodes comprise the adenohypophyseal, olfactory, lens, profundal, trigeminal, otic, lateral line, and epibranchial placodes. The first part of this review presents a brief overview of placode development. Placodes give rise to a variety of cell types and contribute to many sensory organs and ganglia of the vertebrate head. While different placodes differ with respect to location and derivative cell types, all appear to originate from a common panplacodal primordium, induced at the anterior neural plate border by a combination of mesodermal and neural signals and defined by the expression of Six1, Six4, and Eya genes. Evidence from mouse and zebrafish mutants suggests that these genes promote generic placodal properties such as cell proliferation, cell shape changes, and specification of neurons. The common developmental origin of placodes suggests that all placodes may have evolved in several steps from a common precursor. The second part of this review summarizes our current knowledge of placode evolution. Although placodes (like neural crest cells) have been proposed to be evolutionary novelties of vertebrates, recent studies in ascidians and amphioxus have proposed that some placodes originated earlier in the chordate lineage. However, while the origin of several cellular and molecular components of placodes (e.g., regionalized expression domains of transcription factors and some neuronal or neurosecretory cell types) clearly predates the origin of vertebrates, there is presently little evidence that these components are integrated into placodes in protochordates. A scenario is presented according to which all placodes evolved from an adenohypophyseal–olfactory protoplacode, which may have originated in the vertebrate ancestor from the anlage of a rostral neurosecretory organ (surviving as Hatschek's pit in present-day amphioxus). J. Exp. Zool. (Mol. Dev. Evol.) 304B, 2005. © 2005 Wiley-Liss, Inc.