The development of the dentate area and the hippocampal mossy fiber system of the rat has been investigated at the light microscopic level by using fluorescent tracing, Nissl, and Timm's histochemical methods. Although the cytoarchitectonic development of the dentate granular layer is mainly a postnatal phenomenon, the initial events take place before birth. The aggregation and maturation of the cells in the granular layer proceed in a graded fashion from the lateral to the medial and from the superficial to the deep aspects of the layer. The earliest-formed granule cells are probably derived directly from the cells of the ventricular zone. They start to form mossy fibers prenatally, either during the relatively long period of migration to the granular layer or soon after their arrival. However, most of the granule cells are derived from a secondary proliferative center in the hilus. They start to produce mossy fibers postnatally a while after arriving at the granular layer. The total complement of granule cells starts to grow mossy fibers in a sequence that is related to the final position of the cells of origin within the granular layer. This sequence also proceeds in a graded fashion from the lateral to the medial and from the superficial to the deep aspects of the layer. In the beginning the mossy fibers elongate relatively rapidly. Already at birth the Timm-stained mossy fiber zone occupies the anterolateral part of the hilus and the adjacent suprapyramidal parts of the regio inferior. Once the mossy fibers have reached the distal end of the regio inferior they elongate along the longitudinal axis of the hippocampus more slowly. At the same time the Timm-stainability of the mossy fiber zone, which, during the first postnatal week, is weaker toward the regio superior, develops a mature pattern in which the distal part of the zone stains most intensely. Throughout development, fibers from the granule cells that form first are longer and diverge more in the septotemporal dimension than fibers from later-forming granule cells. In contrast to other axonal systems which appear to be sculptured from a diffuse set of connections the results presented here provide evidence that the topographic relationships of the mossy fiber system develop in a stepwise fashion.