We have used ancestral character state reconstruction and molecular dating to test hypotheses on the evolution of New Zealand alpine cicadas of the genus Maoricicada Dugdale. Gene trees were estimated from mitochondrial DNA and the nuclear loci elongation factor 1-α, period, and calmodulin and species-level relationships were reconstructed using gene tree parsimony. These analyses suggest that the alpine habitat character state had a single origin and that the ancestral Maoricicada lived in low to mid-elevation habitats. Our reconstructions also strongly support the hypothesis that this ancestor was darkly coloured and had increased pubescence, classic adaptations of alpine insects. Using relaxed-clock Bayesian dating methods, we estimated that the radiation of the alpine Maoricicada species was coincident with the late Miocene acceleration in the rate of uplift of the Southern Alps rather than uplift in the early Miocene. These dates are very similar to those of other alpine taxa, indicating that the New Zealand alpine biota is very young. Our reconstructions suggest that the ancestral Maoricicada may have been preadapted to the alpine environment because it existed before the origin of high mountainous habitats, dwelt at mid-to-low altitudes, and yet possessed the classic alpine insect adaptations of heavy pubescence and dark coloration. © 2007 The Linnean Society of London, Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2007, 91, 419–435.