The evolution of novel cell types led to the emergence of new tissues and organs during the diversification of animals. The origin of the chondrocyte, the cell type that synthesizes cartilage matrix, was central to the evolution of the vertebrate endoskeleton. Cartilage-like tissues also exist outside the vertebrates, although their relationship to vertebrate cartilage is enigmatic. Here we show that protostome and deuterostome cartilage share structural and chemical properties, and that the mechanisms of cartilage development are extensively conserved—from induction of chondroprogenitor cells by Hedgehog and β-catenin signalling, to chondrocyte differentiation and matrix synthesis by SoxE and SoxD regulation of clade A fibrillar collagen (ColA) genes—suggesting that the chondrogenic gene regulatory network evolved in the common ancestor of Bilateria. These results reveal deep homology of the genetic program for cartilage development in Bilateria and suggest that activation of this ancient core chondrogenic network underlies the parallel evolution of cartilage tissues in Ecdysozoa, Lophotrochozoa and Deuterostomia.