The nucleotide and amino acid sequences of 40 influenza virus hemagglutinin genes of the H3 serotype from mammalian and avian species and 9 genes of the H4 serotype were compared, and their evolutionary relationships were evaluated. From these relationships, the differences in the mutational characteristics of the viral hemagglutinin in different hosts were examined and the RNA sequence changes that occurred during the generation of the progenitor of the 1968 human pandemic strain were examined. Three major lineages were defined: one containing only equine virus isolates; one containing only avian virus isolates; and one containing avian, swine, and human virus isolates. The human pandemic strain of 1968 was derived from an avian virus most similar to those isolated from ducks in Asia, and the transfer of this virus to humans probably occurred in 1965. Since then, the human viruses have diverged from this progenitor, with the accumulation of approximately 7.9 nucleotide and 3.4 amino acid substitutions per year. Reconstruction of the sequence of the hypothetical ancestral strain at the avian-human transition indicated that only 6 amino acids in the mature hemagglutinin molecule were changed during the transition between an avian virus strain and a human pandemic strain. All of these changes are located in regions of the molecule known to affect receptor binding and antigenicity. Unlike the human H3 influenza virus strains, the equine virus isolates have no close relatives in other species and appear to have diverged from the avian viruses much earlier than did the human virus strains. Mutations were estimated to have accumulated in the equine virus lineage at approximately 3.1 nucleotides and 0.8 amino acids per year. Four swine virus isolates in the analysis each appeared to have been introduced into pigs independently, with two derived from human viruses and two from avian viruses. A comparison of the coding and noncoding mutations in the mammalian and avian lineages showed a significantly lower ratio of coding to total nucleotide changes in the avian viruses. Additionally, the avian virus lineages of both the H3 and H4 serotypes, but not the mammalian virus lineages, showed significantly greater conservation of amino acid sequence in the internal branches of the phylogenetic tree than in the terminal branches. The small number of amino acid differences between the avian viruses and the progenitor of the 1968 pandemic strain and the great phenotypic stability of the avian viruses suggest that strains similar to the progenitor strain will continue to circulate in birds and will be available for reintroduction into humans.