Unlike the pandemic form of HIV-1 (group M), group O viruses are endemic in west central Africa, especially in Cameroon. However, little is known about group O's genetic evolution, and why this highly divergent lineage has not become pandemic. Using a unique and large set of group O sequences from samples collected from 1987 to 2012, we find that this lineage has evolved in successive slow and fast phases of diversification, with a most recent common ancestor estimated to have existed around 1930 (1914-1944). The most rapid periods of diversification occurred in the 1950s and in the 1980s, and could be linked to favourable epidemiological contexts in Cameroon. Group O genetic diversity reflects this two-phase evolution, with two distinct populations potentially having different viral properties. The currently predominant viral population emerged in the 1980s, from an ancient population which had first developed in the 1950s, and is characterized by higher growth and evolutionary rates, and the natural presence of the Y181C resistance mutation, thought to confer a phenotypic advantage. Our findings show that although this evolutionary pattern is specific to HIV-1 group O, it paralleled the early spread of HIV-1 group M in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Both viral lineages are likely to have benefited from similar epidemiological contexts. The relative role of virological and social factors in the distinct epidemic histories of HIV-1 group O and M needs to be reassessed.