The evolutionary origin and age of the HERV-H family of human endogenous retrovirus-like sequences was investigated in this study. HERV-H elements exist in approximately 900 partially deleted copies and 50-100 more intact forms in humans and Old World monkeys. However, their possible presence in more divergent species is unknown. We have isolated a 1.6-kb genomic DNA segment from the New World monkey marmoset that had been PCR amplified using human HERV-H primers. DNA and protein comparisons and database searches indicate that this marmoset clone is more closely related to human HERV-H elements than to any other sequence, indicating that HERV-H-related sequences do exist in New World monkeys. In contrast to the high copy numbers of deleted elements in Old World primates. Southern blot analysis shows that such elements are present in less than 50 copies in two different species of New World monkey. To estimate evolutionary ages of the common deleted form of the element, a selected DNA segment from the pol region was compared from multiple human HERV-H elements. This comparison suggests that many HERV-H elements of the abundant deleted subfamily integrated approximately 30-35 million years ago. Very similar percentage divergence values between 5' and 3' long terminal repeats of individual elements of the deleted subfamily also suggest that these elements are close in age. These results indicate that HERV-H elements first appeared in the germline prior to the New World/Old World divergence over 40 million years ago. Interestingly, they remained in low numbers in the New World branch while a subfamily underwent a major amplification in Old World primates before the time of divergence of hominoids from Old World monkeys.