We estimated the latitudinal velocity (km/decade) of northern and southern boundaries of core distributions for 30 woody taxa over the last 16 000 years (biotic velocities) using networks of fossil pollen records, and compared these with climate velocities estimated from CCSM3 simulations. Biotic velocities were faster during periods of rapid temperature change (i.e. 16 to 7 ka) than times of relative stability (i.e. 7 to 1 ka), with a consistent northward movement of northern and southern boundaries. For most taxa, biotic velocities were faster for northern than for southern boundaries between 12 and 7 ka, resulting in expanding distributions. For individual time periods, biotic velocities were as fast or faster than climate velocities calculated using multivariate approaches. These results indicate that climate change paced the rate of distribution shifts in both northern and southern populations while suggesting that northern populations were more sensitive. A similar sensitivity and pacing is expected under 21st century climate change.