The neural crest has long been regarded as one of the key novelties in vertebrate evolutionary history. Indeed, the vertebrate characteristic of a finely patterned craniofacial structure is intimately related to the neural crest. It has been thought that protochordates lacked neural crest counterparts. However, recent identification and characterization of protochordate genes such as Pax3/7, Dlx and BMP family members challenge this idea, because their expression patterns suggest remarkable similarity between the vertebrate neural crest and the ascidian dorsal midline epidermis, which gives rise to both epidermal cells and sensory neurons. The present paper proposes that the neural crest is not a novel vertebrate cell population, but may have originated from the protochordate dorsal midline epidermis. Therefore, the evolution of the vertebrate neural crest should be reconsidered in terms of new cell properties such as pluripotency, delamination–migration and the carriage of an anteroposterior positional value, key innovations leading to development of the complex craniofacial structure in vertebrates. Molecular evolutionary events involved in the acquisitions of these new cell properties are also discussed. Genome duplications during early vertebrate evolution may have played an important role in allowing delamination of the neural crest cells. The new regulatory mechanism of Hox genes in the neural crest is postulated to have developed through the acquisition of new roles by coactivators involved in retinoic acid signaling.