Among the leading causes of death in African children is cerebral malaria caused by the parasitic protozoan Plasmodium falciparum. Endemic forms of this disease are thought to have originated in central Africa 5000-10000 years ago, coincident with the innovation of slash-and-burn agriculture and the diversification of the Anopheles gambiae complex of mosquito vectors. Population genetic studies of P. falciparum have yielded conflicting results. Some evidence suggests that today's population includes multiple ancient lineages pre-dating human speciation. Other evidence suggests that today's population derives from only one, or a small number, of these ancient lineages. Resolution of this issue is important for the evaluation of the long-term efficacy of drug and immunological control strategies.