It is more than 25 years since the first report that a protozoan parasite could die by a process resulting in a morphological phenotype akin to apoptosis. Since then these phenotypes have been observed in many unicellular parasites, including trypanosomatids and apicomplexans, and experimental evidence concerning the molecular pathways that are involved is growing. These observations support the view that this form of programmed cell death is an ancient one that predates the evolution of multicellularity. Here we review various hypotheses that attempt to explain the origin of apoptosis, and look for support for these hypotheses amongst the parasitic protists as, with the exception of yeast, most of the work on death mechanisms in unicellular organisms has focussed on them. We examine the role that addiction modules may have played in the original eukaryote cell and the part played by mitochondria in the execution of present day cells, looking for examples from Leishmania spp. Trypanosoma spp. and Plasmodium spp. In addition, the expanding knowledge of proteases, nucleases and other molecules acting in protist execution pathways has enabled comparisons to be made with extant Archaea and bacteria and with biochemical pathways that evolved in metazoans. These comparisons lend support to the original sin hypothesis but also suggest that present-day death pathways may have had multifaceted beginnings.