Zoogeographic, palaeontological and biochemical data support a Southern Hemisphere origin for passerine birds, while accumulating molecular data suggest that most extant avian orders originated in the mid–Late Cretaceous. We obtained DNA sequence data from the nuclear c–myc and RAG–1 genes of the major passerine groups and here we demonstrate that the endemic New Zealand wrens (Acanthisittidae) are the sister taxon to all other extant passerines, supporting a Gondwanan origin and early radiation of passerines. We propose that (i) the acanthisittids were isolated when New Zealand separated from Gondwana (ca. 82–85 Myr ago), (ii) suboscines, in turn, were derived from an ancestral lineage that inhabited western Gondwana, and (iii) the ancestors of the oscines (songbirds) were subsequently isolated by the separation of Australia from Antarctica. The later spread of passerines into the Northern Hemisphere reflects the northward migration of these former Gondwanan elements.