The recognition of distinctly modified histones by specialized 'effector' proteins constitutes a key mechanism for transducing molecular events at chromatin to biological outcomes. Effector proteins influence DNA-templated processes, including transcription, DNA recombination and DNA repair; however, no effector functions have yet been identified within the mammalian machinery that regulate DNA replication. Here we show that ORC1--a component of ORC (origin of replication complex), which mediates pre-DNA replication licensing--contains a bromo adjacent homology (BAH) domain that specifically recognizes histone H4 dimethylated at lysine 20 (H4K20me2). Recognition of H4K20me2 is a property common to BAH domains present within diverse metazoan ORC1 proteins. Structural studies reveal that the specificity of the BAH domain for H4K20me2 is mediated by a dynamic aromatic dimethyl-lysine-binding cage and multiple intermolecular contacts involving the bound peptide. H4K20me2 is enriched at replication origins, and abrogating ORC1 recognition of H4K20me2 in cells impairs ORC1 occupancy at replication origins, ORC chromatin loading and cell-cycle progression. Mutation of the ORC1 BAH domain has been implicated in the aetiology of Meier-Gorlin syndrome (MGS), a form of primordial dwarfism, and ORC1 depletion in zebrafish results in an MGS-like phenotype. We find that wild-type human ORC1, but not ORC1-H4K20me2-binding mutants, rescues the growth retardation of orc1 morphants. Moreover, zebrafish depleted of H4K20me2 have diminished body size, mirroring the phenotype of orc1 morphants. Together, our results identify the BAH domain as a novel methyl-lysine-binding module, thereby establishing the first direct link between histone methylation and the metazoan DNA replication machinery, and defining a pivotal aetiological role for the canonical H4K20me2 mark, via ORC1, in primordial dwarfism.