The origin of the flightless ratite birds of the southern continents has been debated for over a century. Whether dispersal or vicariance (continental breakup) best explains their origin depends largely on their phylogenetic relationships. No consensus has been reached on this issue despite many morphological and molecular studies. To address this question further we sequenced a 2.8-kb region of mitochondrial DNA containing the ribosomal genes in representative ratites and a tinamou. Phylogenetic analyses indicate that Struthio (Africa) is basal and Rhea (South America) clusters with living Australasian ratites. This phylogeny agrees with transferrin and DNA hybridization studies but not with sequence analyses of some protein-coding genes. These results also require reevaluation of the phylogenetic position of the extinct moas of New Zealand. We propose a new hypothesis for the origin of ratites that combines elements of dispersal and vicariance.