A general mathematical model of cell invasion is developed and validated with an experimental system. The model incorporates two basic cell functions: non-directed (diffusive) motility and proliferation to a carrying capacity limit. The model is used here to investigate cell proliferation and motility differences along the axis of an invasion wave. Mathematical simulations yield surprising and counterintuitive predictions. In this general scenario, cells at the invasive front are proliferative and migrate into previously unoccupied tissues while those behind the front are essentially nonproliferative and do not directly migrate into unoccupied tissues. These differences are not innate to the cells, but are a function of proximity to uninvaded tissue. Therefore, proliferation at the invading front is the critical mechanism driving apparently directed invasion. An appropriate system to experimentally validate these predictions is the directional invasion and colonization of the gut by vagal neural crest cells that establish the enteric nervous system. An assay using gut organ culture with chick-quail grafting is used for this purpose. The experimental results are entirely concordant with the mathematical predictions. We conclude that proliferation at the wavefront is a key mechanism driving the invasive process. This has important implications not just for the neural crest, but for other invasion systems such as epidermal wound healing, carcinoma invasion and other developmental cell migrations.