The anteroposterior axis of the vertebrate embryo becomes explicit during gastrulation, the process that converts a relatively featureless embryonic precursor population into new tissues assembled into a recognisable body pattern. Vertebrate embryos arrive at gastrulation in very different states in terms of their size, cell number and reliance on factors inherited from the unfertilized egg. However, they emerge from gastrulation looking very similar, and there is now extensive molecular genetic evidence to indicate that the bare essentials of the gastrulation process have been well conserved during evolution. Here, we review recent findings in the mouse that suggest that anterior identity is, in fact, established before gastrulation starts. They suggest that it is first manifest in extraembryonic tissue and that this tissue is essential for the embryo to develop normal anterior structures, such as the forebrain. We also argue that this precocious anterior pattern could have a counterpart in other non-mammalian vertebrates.