The extent to which species richness patterns of the major palm subfamilies in the Americas are controlled by lineage history was studied. Based on the fossil record, we suggest that the subfamily Coryphoideae has followed a boreotropical dispersal route into Central and South America, whereas Calamoideae (tribe Lepidocaryeae), Ceroxyloideae and Arecoideae have Gondwana/South America-biased histories. However, Arecoideae has been present and diverse in both South and Central America at least since the early Tertiary. We used regression analyses to evaluate the relative importance of environmental factors and spatial variables (as substitutes for historical or other non-environmental factors) as determinants of geographical variation in species richness for each subfamily. Given the different lineage histories, we hypothesized that: (1) coryphoid richness should be least strongly controlled by the modern environment and exhibit a strong non-environmental bias towards Central and North America, reflecting its boreotropical invasion route, (2) calamoid species richness should exhibit a non-environmental bias towards South America, reflecting its long African–South American history, and (3) arecoid species richness should be most strongly environmentally determined, reflecting the long arecoid residency in both Central and South America. The regression analyses confirmed the hypothesized effects of lineage history on the geographical patterns in species richness. Hence, modern species richness patterns in the New World palm subfamilies strongly reflect their divergent biogeographical histories. © 2006 The Linnean Society of London, Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society, 2006, 151, 113–125.