Historical climate changes have had a major effect on the distribution and evolution of plant species in the neotropics. What is more controversial is whether relatively recent Pleistocene climatic changes have driven speciation, or whether neotropical species diversity is more ancient. This question is addressed using evolutionary rate analysis of sequence data of nuclear ribosomal internal transcribed spacers in diverse taxa occupying neotropical seasonally dry forests, including Ruprechtia (Polygonaceae), robinioid legumes (Fabaceae), Chaetocalyx and Nissolia (Fabaceae), and Loxopterygium (Anacardiaceae). Species diversifications in these taxa occurred both during and before the Pleistocene in Central America, but were primarily pre–Pleistocene in South America. This indicates plausibility both for models that predict tropical species diversity to be recent and that invoke a role for Pleistocene climatic change, and those that consider it ancient and implicate geological factors such as the Andean orogeny and the closure of the Panama Isthmus. Cladistic vicariance analysis was attempted to identify common factors underlying evolution in these groups. In spite of the similar Mid–Miocene to Pliocene ages of the study taxa, and their high degree of endemism in the different fragments of South American dry forests, the analysis yielded equivocal, non–robust patterns of area relationships.