In primates, the tandemly repeated genes encoding U2 small nuclear RNA evolve concertedly, i.e. the sequence of the U2 repeat unit is essentially homogeneous within each species but differs somewhat between species. Using chromosome painting and the NGFR gene as an outside marker, we show that the U2 tandem array (RNU2) has remained at the same chromosomal locus (equivalent to human 17q21) through multiple speciation events over > 35 million years leading to the Old World monkey and hominoid lineages. The data suggest that the U2 tandem repeat, once established in the primate lineage, contained sequence elements favoring perpetuation and concerted evolution of the array in situ, despite a pericentric inversion in chimpanzee, a reciprocal translocation in gorilla and a paracentric inversion in orang utan. Comparison of the 11 kb U2 repeat unit found in baboon and other Old World monkeys with the 6 kb U2 repeat unit in humans and other hominids revealed that an ancestral U2 repeat unit was expanded by insertion of a 5 kb retrovirus bearing 1 kb long terminal repeats (LTRs). Subsequent excision of the provirus by homologous recombination between the LTRs generated a 6 kb U2 repeat unit containing a solo LTR. Remarkably, both junctions between the human U2 tandem array and flanking chromosomal DNA at 17q21 fall within the solo LTR sequence, suggesting a role for the LTR in the origin or maintenance of the primate U2 array.