A detailed analysis of the evolutionary history of hepatitis B virus (HBV) was undertaken using 39 mammalian hepadnaviruses for which complete genome sequences were available, including representatives of all six human genotypes, as well as a large sample of small S gene sequences. Phylogenetic trees of these data were ambiguous, supporting no single place of origin for HBV, and depended heavily on the underlying model of DNA substitution. In some instances genotype F, predominant in the Americas, was the first to diverge, suggesting that the virus arose in the New World. In other trees, however, sequences from genotype B, prevalent in East Asia, were the most divergent. An attempt was also made to determine the rate of nucleotide substitution in the C open reading frame and then to date the origin of HBV. However, no relationship between time and number of substitutions was found in two independent data sets, indicating that a reliable molecular clock does not exist for these data. Both the pattern and the rate of nucleotide substitution are therefore complex phenomena in HBV and hinder any attempt to reconstruct the past spread of this virus.