Analysis of the 3'-ends of approximately 900 separate human LINE-1 (L1) elements from primates revealed 47 contiguous but distinct subfamilies with the L1 family. Eight previously described medium reiteration frequency sequences (MERs) were found to be parts of ancient L1 untranslated 3'-regions which show little or no sequence similarity to the presently active L1 3'-end. Some of the major changes in 3'-end sequence can be explained by recombination events between different L1 repeats as well as between L1 and unrelated repetitive sequences. One of these sequences, MER42, is reported in this paper. With the set of consensus sequences for different subfamilies and their diagnostic features, it is possible to estimate the age of individual LINE-1 elements. Contrary to earlier suggestions, the majority of L1 copies in the human genome is very old; more than half of the identifiable elements were inserted into the genome before the mammalian radiation, as evidenced by elements at orthologous sites in human and other mammalian genomes. Multiple distinct L1 source genes seem to have been active simultaneously over long periods of time.