The glacial–interglacial cycles have caused severe range modifications of species' distributions. In Europe, thermophilic species had to retreat into geographically distinct southern refugia during glaciations. This process produced strong genetic imprints, which are still detectable by the present pattern of genetic differentiation and the distribution of regional diversity. To reveal the biogeographical imprints in the western Mediterranean, we analysed 26 populations of the butterfly Maniola jurtina spread over large areas of its European and North African distribution range. The samples were analysed using allozyme electrophoresis. We detected three genetic groups, divided into Western Europe, Central/Eastern Europe, and Italy with the Maghreb. The North African samples randomly cluster within the Italian samples. Even the population sampled in Morocco is genetically closely related to these samples and not to the geographically neighbouring Iberian ones. Parameters of genetic diversity showed similar values over the whole study area. The observed genetic pattern reflects possible glacial refugia in Europe located in the Iberian Peninsula and the Balkans. For North Africa and Italy, our data reveal a colonization of Africa originating from Italy. © 2009 The Linnean Society of London, Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2009, 98, 693–703.