The major cause of acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) is human immunodeficiency virus type 1 (HIV-1). We have been using evolutionary comparisons to trace (i) the origin(s) of HIV-1 and (ii) the origin(s) of AIDS. The closest relatives of HIV-1 are simian immunodeficiency viruses (SIVs) infecting wild-living chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes troglodytes) and gorillas (Gorilla gorilla gorilla) in west central Africa. Phylogenetic analyses have revealed the origins of HIV-1: chimpanzees were the original hosts of this clade of viruses; four lineages of HIV-1 have arisen by independent cross-species transmissions to humans and one or two of those transmissions may have been via gorillas. However, SIVs are primarily monkey viruses: more than 40 species of African monkeys are infected with their own, species-specific, SIV and in at least some host species, the infection seems non-pathogenic. Chimpanzees acquired from monkeys two distinct forms of SIVs that recombined to produce a virus with a unique genome structure. We have found that SIV infection causes CD4(+) T-cell depletion and increases mortality in wild chimpanzees, and so the origin of AIDS is more ancient than the origin of HIV-1. Tracing the genetic changes that occurred as monkey viruses adapted to infect first chimpanzees and then humans may provide insights into the causes of the pathogenicity of these viruses.