The cephalic neural crest produces streams of migrating cells that populate pharyngeal arches and a more rostral, premandibular domain, to give rise to an extensive ectomesenchyme in the embryonic vertebrate head. The crest cells forming the trigeminal stream are the major source of the craniofacial skeleton; however, there is no clear distinction between the mandibular arch and the premandibular domain in this ectomesenchyme. The question regarding the evolution of the gnathostome jaw is, in part, a question about the differentiation of the mandibular arch, the rostralmost component of the pharynx, and in part a question about the developmental fate of the premandibular domain. We address the developmental definition of the mandibular arch in connection with the developmental origin of the trabeculae, paired cartilaginous elements generally believed to develop in the premandibular domain, and also of enigmatic cartilaginous elements called polar cartilages. Based on comparative embryology, we propose that the mandibular arch ectomesenchyme in gnathostomes can be defined as a Dlx1-positive domain, and that the polar cartilages, which develop from the Dlx1-negative premandibular ectomesenchyme, would represent merely posterior parts of the trabeculae. We also show, in the lamprey embryo, early migration of mandibular arch mesenchyme into the premandibular domain, and propose an updated version of the heterotopy theory on the origin of the jaw.