We apply historical biogeography techniques to the macaques, baboons and their relatives (Primata: Papionini) and relate the inferred history of range shifts, and associated evolutionary events, to the latitudinal distribution of extant species, which is strongly tropical. The results of reversible parsimony, weighted ancestral area and dispersal-vicariance analyses all agree that Central Africa was part of the range of the ancestor of the tribe. Tropical regions with high current species richness (Central Africa, South-east Asia, Indonesia) have: (1) had a relatively long history of occupation, (2) experienced both a greater number and a greater average rate of speciation events and (3) given rise to more dispersal events to other regions. However, nested sister-taxon comparisons across the tribe show no overall association between differences in latitude and differences in rates of cladogenesis. Our historical reconstructions are largely consistent with previous hypotheses and fossil data, and suggest that both the passage of time since colonization and rates of cladogenesis have enhanced tropical species richness. Historical biogeography may thus considerably aid understanding of this and other spatial problems in macroecology. © 2005 The Linnean Society of London, Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2005, 85, 235–246.