Understanding the way in which animals diversified and radiated during their early evolutionary history remains one of the most captivating of scientific challenges. Integral to this is the 'Cambrian explosion', which records the rapid emergence of most animal phyla, and for which the triggering and accelerating factors, whether environmental or biological, are still unclear. Here we describe exceptionally well-preserved complex digestive organs in early arthropods from the early Cambrian of China and Greenland with functional similarities to certain modern crustaceans and trace these structures through the early evolutionary lineage of fossil arthropods. These digestive structures are assumed to have allowed for more efficient digestion and metabolism, promoting carnivory and macrophagy in early arthropods via predation or scavenging. This key innovation may have been of critical importance in the radiation and ecological success of Arthropoda, which has been the most diverse and abundant invertebrate phylum since the Cambrian. © 2014 Macmillan Publishers Limited.