The proteolytic enzymes that depend upon a cysteine residue for activity have come from at least seven different evolutionary origins, each of which has produced a group of cysteine peptidases with distinctive structures and properties. We show here that the characteristic molecular topologies of the peptidases in each evolutionary line can be seen not only in their three-dimensional structures, but commonly also in the two-dimensional structures. Clan CA contains the families of papain (C1), calpain (C2), streptopain (C10) and the ubiquitin-specific peptidases (C12, C19), as well as many families of viral cysteine endopeptidases. Clan CD contains the families of clostripain (C11), gingipain R (C25), legumain (C13), caspase-1 (C14) and separin (C50). These enzymes have specificities dominated by the interactions of the S1 subsite. Clan CE contains the families of adenain (C5) from adenoviruses, the eukaryotic Ulp1 protease (C48) and the bacterial YopJ proteases (C55). Clan CF contains only pyroglutamyl peptidase I (C15). The picornains (C3) in clan PA have probably evolved from serine peptidases, which still form the majority of enzymes in the clan. The cysteine peptidase activities in clans PB and CH are autolytic only. In conclusion, we suggest that although almost all the cysteine peptidases depend for activity on catalytic dyads of cysteine and histidine, it is worth noting some important differences that they have inherited from their distant ancestral peptidases.