Drainage networks in linear mountain ranges always display a particular geometrical organisation whereby the spacing between the major drainage basins is on average equal to half the mountain width (distance from the mountain front to the main drainage divide), independent of climate and tectonics. This relationship is valid for mountains having different widths and is thus usually thought to be maintained by drainage reorganisation during mountain belt widening. However, such large-scale systematic drainage reorganisation has never been evidenced. In this paper, we suggest an alternative explanation, namely that the observed drainage basin relationships are an inherent property of dendritic river networks and that these relationships are established on the undissected, lowland margins outside mountain ranges and are progressively incorporated and quenched into uplifted topography during range widening. Thus, we suggest that the large-scale geometry of drainage networks in mountain ranges is mainly antecedent to erosion. We propose a model in which the large-scale drainage geometry is controlled mainly by the geometrical properties of the undissected surfaces (in particular, the ratio of the regional slope to the local slope related to roughness) over which rivers are flowing before uplift, and is therefore independent of climate and tectonics.