Ratites and tinamous are a morphologically diverse group of flightless and weakly flighted birds. As one of the most basal clades of extant birds, they are frequently used as an outgroup for studies discussing character evolution within other avian orders. Their skeletal development is not well known in spite of their important phylogenetic position, and studies have historically been plagued with small sample sizes and limited anatomical and temporal scope. Here, I describe the ossification of the skull in the emu (Dromaius novaehollandiae), ostrich (Struthio camelus), greater rhea (Rhea americana), and elegant crested-tinamou (Eudromia elegans). Skeletal development is remarkably consistent within palaeognaths, in spite of large differences in absolute size and incubation period. Adult morphology appears to play a role in interordinal differences in the sequence and timing of ossification of certain bones. Neither the timing of cranial ossification events relative to stage nor the sequence of ossification events provides any evidence in support of a paedomorphic origin of the palaeognathous palate. This study provides an important first look at the timing and sequence of skull development in palaeognathous birds, providing data that can be compared to better-studied avian systems in order to polarize ontogenetic characters. © 2009 The Linnean Society of London, Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2009, 156, 184–200.