Mitochondrial D-loop hypervariable region I (HVI) sequences are widely used in human molecular evolutionary studies, and therefore accurate assessment of rate heterogeneity among sites is essential. We used the maximum-likelihood method to estimate the gamma shape parameter alpha for variable substitution rates among sites for HVI from humans and chimpanzees to provide estimates for future studies. The complete data of 839 humans and 224 chimpanzees, as well as many subsets of these data, were analyzed to examine the effect of sequence sampling. The effects of the genealogical tree and the nucleotide substitution model were also examined. The transition/transversion rate ratio (kappa) is estimated to be about 25, although much larger and biased estimates were also obtained from small data sets at low divergences. Estimates of alpha were 0.28-0.39 for human data sets of different sizes and 0.20-0.39 for data sets including different chimpanzee subspecies. The combined data set of both species gave estimates of 0.42-0.45. While all those estimates suggest highly variable substitution rates among sites, smaller samples tend to give smaller estimates of alpha. Possible causes for this pattern were examined, such as biases in the estimation procedure and shifts in the rate distribution along certain lineages. Computer simulations suggest that the estimation procedure is quite reliable for large trees but can be biased for small samples at low divergences. Thus, an alpha of 0.4 appears suitable for both humans and chimpanzees. Estimates of alpha can be affected by the nucleotide sites included in the data, the overall tree length (the amount of sequence divergence), the number of rate classes used for the estimation, and to a lesser extent, the included sequences. The genealogical tree, the substitution model, and demographic processes such as population expansion do not have much effect.