Several recent studies have argued that human genetic variation conforms to a model of isolation by distance, whereas others see a predominant role for long-range migrations and bottlenecks. It is unclear whether either of these views fully describes the global pattern of human genetic variation. In this article, we use a coalescent-based simulation approach to compare the pattern of neutral genetic variation predicted by these views to the observed pattern estimated from neutral autosomal microsatellites assayed in 1,032 individuals from 53 globally-distributed populations. We find that neither view predicts every aspect of the observed pattern of variation on its own, but that a combination of the two does. Specifically, we demonstrate that the observed pattern of global gene identity variation is consistent with a history of serial population fissions, bottlenecks and long-range migrations associated with the peopling of major geographic regions, and gene flow between local populations. This history has produced a nested pattern of genetic structure that is inconsistent with the existence of independently evolving biological races. We consider the implications of our findings for methods that apportion variation into within- and between-group components and for medical genetics. Am J Phys Anthropol 2009. © 2009 Wiley-Liss, Inc.