We have undertaken the first large–scale molecular phylogenetic analysis of the Stylommatophora. Sequences of the ribosomal RNA gene–cluster were examined in 104 species of snails and slugs from 50 families, encompassing all the currently recognized major groups. It allows an independent test of the present classification based on morphology. At the level of families our molecular phylogeny closely supports the current taxonomy, but the deep branches within the tree do not. Surprisingly, a single assemblage including the families Achatinidae, Subulinidae and Streptaxidae lies near the base of the tree, forming a sister group to all remaining stylommatophorans. This primary division into ‘achatinoid’ and ‘non–achatinoid’ taxa is unexpected, and demands a radical reinterpretation of early stylommatophoran evolution. In particular, the Orthurethra appear to be relatively advanced within the ‘non–achatinoid clade’, and broadly equivalent to other super–familial clusters. This indicates that supposedly primitive features such as the orthurethran kidney are derived. The molecular tree also suggests that the origin of the Stylommatophora is much earlier than the main period of their diversification.