Prior to the extinction wave that followed the human colonization of Oceania, flightless rails (Aves: Rallidae) were among the largest radiations of island birds, and perhaps the most species-rich example of convergent evolution in vertebrates. Insular flightless species are thought to have evolved from extant, volant species that colonized from continental sources and rapidly followed parallel adaptive pathways to flightlessness. The present study provides the first test of this model of speciation using genetic data sampled throughout the range of a putative ancestral species. Mitochondrial control region sequences from 71 individuals of the Gallirallus philippensis species complex reveal essentially no geographic structure within archipelagos and only weak structure among archipelagos, with no major genetic breaks except for birds sampled in the Philippines. Demographic tests of coalescent models support a recent rapid expansion into Oceania (including Australia) out of the Philippines approximately 20 000 years ago. The estimated coalescence of G. philippensis mitochondrial alleles approximately 33 000 years ago closely corresponds to the expansion of humans into the archipelagoes of Near Oceania, suggesting that humans may have facilitated its colonization by exterminating flightless competitors and clearing lowland forests. Phylogenetic analyses that included all G. philippensis haplotypes and samples from 11 single-island endemic flightless species of Gallirallus indicate that G. philippensis is polyphyletic, but is not the ancestor of most of its flightless congeners, as previously thought. Nuclear gene sequences (β-actin inron 3) suggest that G. philippensis polyphyly is at least partly due to hybridization. The flightless condition evolves in rails before reproductive isolation is complete. © 2009 The Linnean Society of London, Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2009, 96, 601–616.