The first animals arose more than six hundred million years ago, yet they left little impression in the fossil record. Nonetheless, the cell biology and genome composition of the first animal, the Urmetazoan, can be reconstructed through the study of phylogenetically relevant living organisms. Comparisons among animals and their unicellular and colonial relatives reveal that the Urmetazoan likely possessed a layer of epithelium-like collar cells, preyed on bacteria, reproduced by sperm and egg, and developed through cell division, cell differentiation, and invagination. Although many genes involved in development, body patterning, immunity, and cell-type specification evolved in the animal stem lineage or after animal origins, several gene families critical for cell adhesion, signaling, and gene regulation predate the origin of animals. The ancestral functions of these and other genes may eventually be revealed through studies of gene and genome function in early-branching animals and their closest non-animal relatives.