Several unique properties of human mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), including its high copy number, maternal inheritance, lack of recombination, and high mutation rate, have made it the molecule of choice for studies of human population history and evolution. Here we review the current state of knowledge concerning these properties, how mtDNA variation is studied, what we have learned, and what the future likely holds. We conclude that increasingly, mtDNA studies are (and should be) supplemented with analyses of the Y-chromosome and other nuclear DNA variation. Some serious issues need to be addressed concerning nuclear inserts, database quality, and the possible influence of selection on mtDNA variation. Nonetheless, mtDNA studies will continue to play an important role in such areas as examining socio-cultural influences on human genetic variation, ancient DNA, certain forensic DNA applications, and in tracing personal genetic history.