To investigate the population genetics of short tandem repeat (STR) polymorphisms in human populations, we have studied the allele frequency distributions of four STR loci (HUMTH01, HUMVWA31, HUMF13A1 and HUMFES) in 16 different population surveys which can be categorised within three broadly defined ethnic groups: Caucasian, Asian (Indian subcontinent), and African (Afro-Caribbean and US black). We have observed that allele frequency distributions of populations within ethnic groups are similar; consequently, genetic distances are an order of magnitude lower than between ethnic groups. Inbreeding coefficients (F-statistics) and calculations of the number of mean heterozygous loci per individual, along with estimates of variance, did not suggest that the populations were substructured. This included a study of an immigrant Asian population known to comprise at least three different sub-groups. Finally, an indication of the discriminating power is given by calculation of likelihood ratios (LR) of each individual tested across all four loci. Approximately 70% of Caucasians give an LR of greater than 10,000; the test is even more discriminating in Afro-Caribbeans--approximately 90% of tests are greater than 10,000.