The schism between North Africa and Southern Europe caused by the opening of the Strait of Gibraltar and the consequent refilling of the Mediterranean basin at the end of Messinian salinity crisis (MSC), 5.33 million years ago, has been advocated as the main event shaping biogeographical patterns in the western Mediterranean as exemplified by the distribution of species and subspecies and genetic variation within the ocellated lizard group. To reassess the role of the MSC, partial sequences of three mitochondrial DNA genes (cytochrome b, 12S and 16S ribosomal RNA) and two nuclear genes (β-fibrinogen and C-mos) from species of the ocellated lizard group were analysed. Three alternative hypotheses were tested: that divergence was initiated (i) by post-MSC vicariance as the basin filled, (ii) when separate populations established either side of the strait by pre-MSC overseas dispersal, and (iii) by post-MSC overseas dispersal. The pattern and level of divergence detected clearly refute the post-MSC vicariance hypothesis, and support a model of divergence initiated by earlier overseas dispersal. Indeed, our best estimate is that the basal Euro-African divergence predates the MSC event by several million years. The estimated divergence times among the populations in former Miocene Mediterranean islands, the current Betic and Rifian mountains, from adjacent mainland populations suggest overseas dispersal for the former and overland dispersal, or perhaps vicariance, for the latter. These results suggest that the MSC may have played a much less important role in shaping the current western Mediterranean biogeographical patterns than might have been anticipated from the dramatic nature of the episode.