The geological record of protists begins well before the Ediacaran and Cambrian diversification of animals, but the antiquity of that history, its reliability as a chronicle of evolution and the causal inferences that can be drawn from it remain subjects of debate. Well-preserved protists are known from a relatively small number of Proterozoic formations, but taphonomic considerations suggest that they capture at least broad aspects of early eukaryotic evolution. A modest diversity of problematic, possibly stem group protists occurs in ca 1800-1300 Myr old rocks. 1300-720 Myr fossils document the divergence of major eukaryotic clades, but only with the Ediacaran-Cambrian radiation of animals did diversity increase within most clades with fossilizable members. While taxonomic placement of many Proterozoic eukaryotes may be arguable, the presence of characters used for that placement is not. Focus on character evolution permits inferences about the innovations in cell biology and development that underpin the taxonomic and morphological diversification of eukaryotic organisms.