The var gene family encodes Plasmodium falciparum erythrocyte membrane 1 (PfEMP1) proteins that act as virulence factors responsible for both antigenic variation and cytoadherence of infected erythrocytes. These proteins orchestrate infected erythrocyte sequestration from blood circulation and contribute to adhesion-based complications of P. falciparum malaria infections. For this study, we analysed the genetic organization and strain structure of var genes and present evidence for three separately evolving groups that have, in part, functionally diverged and differ between subtelomeric and central chromosomal locations. Our analyses suggest that a recombination hierarchy limits reassortment between groups and may explain why some var genes are unusually conserved between parasite strains. This recombination hierarchy, coupled with binding and immune selection, shapes the variant antigen repertoire and has structural, functional and evolutionary consequences for the PfEMP1 protein family that are directly relevant to malaria pathogenesis.