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The embedded multireference frames selection with variable block-size motion compensation model drastically increases the computational complexity of the H.264/AVC video coding standard. This paper proposes an adaptive hierarchical motion estimation (ME) algorithm for H.264/AVC with the objective of minimizing the complexity while maximizing the visual quality. The proposed algorithm is based on a framework that exploits the "history" of the motion intensity from a video sequence in order to control ME. The complexity and memory requirement for this meta information is low. The algorithm determines the motion intensity of a video sequence at three levels and accordingly employs different ME techniques. The results certify that the history-based hierarchical information can be very effective in improving the efficiency of ME.