On the basis of an assemblage of fossilized wing scales recovered from latest Triassic and earliest Jurassic sediments from northern Germany, we provide the earliest evidence for Lepidoptera (moths and butterflies). The diverse scales confirm a (Late) Triassic radiation of lepidopteran lineages, including the divergence of the Glossata, the clade that comprises the vast multitude of extant moths and butterflies that have a sucking proboscis. The microfossils extend the minimum calibrated age of glossatan moths by ca. 70 million years, refuting ancestral association of the group with flowering plants. Development of the proboscis may be regarded as an adaptive innovation to sucking free liquids for maintaining the insect’s water balance under arid conditions. Pollination drops secreted by a variety of Mesozoic gymnosperms may have been non-mutualistically exploited as a high-energy liquid source. The early evolution of the Lepidoptera was probably not severely interrupted by the end-Triassic biotic crisis.