This study presents an analysis of 20 tetranucleotide microsatellites in 16 worldwide human populations representing the major geographic groups. Global Fst values for the 20 microsatellites are indicators of their relative validity as tools in human population genetics. Four different measures of genetic distance (Fst, DSW, delta mu 2 and Rst) have been tested and compared with each other. Neighbor-joining trees have been constructed for all the measures of genetic distance and populations. Measures of genetic distance such as Fst, which does not consider different mutational relationships among alleles and has a known relationship to differentiation by drift, and to some extent DSW, reflect what is known of human evolution, while mutation-based distances such as Rst and delta mu 2 give very different results from those recognized from other sources (genetic or archaeological). When the genetic relationship between human populations is analyzed through allelic frequencies for microsatellites, the choice of distance may be a key issue in the picture obtained of genetic relationships between human populations. The results of the present study suggest that genetic drift played the main role in generating the present distributions of microsatellite alleles and their variation among human populations; the role of mutation must have been less important owing to the time constraint imposed by the small timescale in which most human differentiation has occurred. Moreover, the results support the theory of a recent origin of modern humans, although the existence of strong bottlenecks in the origin of the various human groups seems unlikely.