Studying shifts in species diversity through time and space is an essential component of many aspects of biogeography and ecology. In this study, we predict the potential distribution of 61 species of African estrildid finches in order to assess current and past diversity patterns. Models were projected onto two climatic scenarios (Community Climate System Model, CCSM, and Model for Interdisciplinary Research on Climate, MIROC) representing past climate conditions, as might be expected during the Last Glacial Maximum 21 000 years BP. Subsequent overlays of the resulting potential distributions were conducted under different dispersal assumptions and compared with expert maps. Our results suggest highly similar current distribution patterns obtained by both methods. Projections onto Pleistocene scenarios showed similar patterns, with only small differences under limited and unlimited dispersal assumptions. Looking separately at diversity patterns predicted for forest and savannah species, diversity hot spots of forest species under MIROC conditions were consistent with suggested forest refugia, but were inconsistent under CCSM conditions. According to our models, savannah species were more widely distributed during the cooler and drier conditions of the Pleistocene. By using ecological niche models we show that current diversity patterns of a whole species group may have changed only slightly since the Pleistocene, suggesting a pattern of general spatial stability. However, we emphasize the importance of using different climatic scenarios as well as including the supposed dispersal of organisms in the modelling, as these factors influence results on a broad scale. © 2011 The Linnean Society of London, Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2011, 102, 455–470.