Symbiotic associations occur in every habitat on earth, but we know very little about their evolutionary histories. Current models of trait evolution cannot adequately reconstruct the deep history of symbiotic innovation, because they assume homogenous evolutionary processes across millions of years. Here we use a recently developed, heterogeneous and quantitative phylogenetic framework to study the origin of the symbiosis between angiosperms and nitrogen-fixing (N 2) bacterial symbionts housed in nodules. We compile the largest database of global nodulating plant species and reconstruct the symbiosis' evolution. We identify a single, cryptic evolutionary innovation driving symbiotic N2 -fixation evolution, followed by multiple gains and losses of the symbiosis, and the subsequent emergence of 'stable fixers' (clades extremely unlikely to lose the symbiosis). Originating over 100 MYA, this innovation suggests deep homology in symbiotic N2-fixation. Identifying cryptic innovations on the tree of life is key to understanding the evolution of complex traits, including symbiotic partnerships. Limited.