U–Pb detrital zircon ages in variably metamorphosed, dominantly fine-grained clastic successions are used in northeastern Australia to identify two major successions along the East Gondwana margin. The older succession is of probable Late Neoproterozoic age and is considered part of a passive margin associated with rifting at c. 600 Ma. Most detrital zircons have ages in the range 1000–1300 Ma and were probably derived from an extension of a Late Mesoproterozoic (1050–1200 Ma) orogenic belt from the central Australian Musgrave Complex located 1500 km to the west. No evidence has been found for 600–800 Ma rifting of a Rodinian supercontinent and therefore it is suggested that breakup must have occurred well outboard of the present Early Palaeozoic East Gondwana margin. The younger succession is of Early Palaeozoic age and contains the distinctive 500–600 Ma detrital zircon signature that is widespread in East Gondwana in addition to some samples with ages in the range 460–510 Ma consistent with local igneous sources. The younger succession is related to the active margin of Gondwana that developed on the former passive margin in a back-arc setting, and the source of 510–600 Ma zircons is considered to be a composite of rift-related and back-arc volcanic sources.