Genetic data are currently providing a large amount of new information on past distribution of species and are contributing to a new vision of Pleistocene ice ages. Nonetheless, an increasing number of studies on the ‘time dependency’ of mutation rates suggest that date assessments for evolutionary events of the Pleistocene might be overestimated. We analysed mitochondrial (mt) DNA (COI) sequence variation in 225 Parnassius mnemosyne individuals sampled across central and eastern Europe in order to assess (i) the existence of genetic signatures of Pleistocene climate shifts; and (ii) the timescale of demographic and evolutionary events. Our analyses reveal a phylogeographical pattern markedly influenced by the Pleistocene/Holocene climate shifts. Eastern Alpine and Balkan populations display comparatively high mtDNA diversity, suggesting multiple glacial refugia. On the other hand, three widely distributed and spatially segregated lineages occupy most of northern and eastern Europe, indicating postglacial recolonization from different refugial areas. We show that a conventional ‘phylogenetic’ substitution rate cannot account for the present distribution of genetic variation in this species, and we combine phylogeographical pattern and palaeoecological information in order to determine a suitable intraspecific rate through a Bayesian coalescent approach. We argue that our calibrated ‘time-dependent’ rate (0.096 substitutions/million years), offers the most convincing time frame for the evolutionary events inferred from sequence data. When scaled by the new rate, estimates of divergence between Balkan and Alpine lineages point to c. 19 000 years before present (last glacial maximum), and parameters of demographic expansion for northern lineages are consistent with postglacial warming (5–11 000 years before present).