We describe a general strategy for the detection of high-frequency restriction fragment length polymorphisms in the centromeric regions of human chromosomes by molecular analysis of alpha satellite DNA, a diverse family of tandemly repeated DNA located near the centromeres of all human chromosomes. To illustrate this strategy, cloned alpha satellite repeats isolated from two human chromosomes, 17 and X, have been used under high-stringency conditions that take advantage of the chromosome-specific organization of this divergent repeated DNA family. Multiple high-frequency restriction fragment length polymorphisms are described for the centromeric region of both chromosome 17 and X chromosome. Mendelian inheritance of the variants is demonstrated. The X-linked alpha satellite polymorphisms in particular are highly informative and constitute a virtually unique centromeric DNA marker for each X chromosome examined. Since the strategy we describe is a general one, the alpha satellite family of DNA should provide a rich source of molecular variation in the human genome and should contribute to the development of centromere-based genetic linkage maps of human chromosomes.