In Drosophila embryos, anterior-posterior positional identities are set and maintained by the expression boundaries of homeotic selector genes. The establishment of the initial expression boundaries of the homeotic genes are in turn dependent on earlier acting patterning genes of Drosophila. To define the combinations of early genes that are required to establish a unique blastoderm stripe of expression of the homeotic gene Deformed, we have analysed single and double patterning mutants and heat shock promoter fusion constructs that ectopically express early acting regulators. We find that the activation of Deformed is dependent on combinatorial input from at least three levels of the early hierarchy. The simplest activation code sufficient to establish Deformed expression, given the absence of negative regulators such as fushi-tarazu, consists of a moderate level of expression from the coordinate gene bicoid, in combination with expression from both the gap gene hunchback, and the pair-rule gene even-skipped. In addition, the activation code for Deformed is redundant; other pair-rule genes in addition to even-skipped can apparently act in combination with bicoid and hunchback to activate Deformed.