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During the Neogene, the Brazilian cerrado became established as a large-scale vegetation type. Cerrado lineages started to diversify less than 10 million years ago, coinciding with the rise to dominance of flammable C4 grasses and the expansion of the savanna biome. Cerrado lineages are strongly associated with adaptations to fire and have sister groups in fire-free nearby forests, implying that the cerrado formed in situ via adaptive shifts to resist fire. By including phylogeny into the analysis of biological traits, we investigated trait diversity of cerrado woody species in a phylogenetic context, sampling a cerrado site in central Brazil. Decomposing trait diversity along the nodes of a phylogenetic tree of cerrado woody species, we found that the rate of trait diversification was higher in the past, coinciding with the major species diversification of angiosperms in mid-Cretaceous, long before the cerrado originated. Some more recent adaptive shifts to resist fire, however, must have occurred during the origin and expansion of the cerrado woody flora. Analysing values of each trait separately at the tips of the phylogenetic tree, we found that most trait values were randomly distributed, probably because we analysed only species that had already been filtered by drought, fire, and soil. Analysing values of all traits simultaneously at the tips, we found close to root events and broad, macro-evolutionary patterns, called ‘global structures’, opposing some lineages, especially Fabaceae and Myrtaceae, with different ecological strategies. Fabaceae presented compound, large, tender leaves, with high nitrogen content due to symbiosis with nitrogen-fixing bacteria, and Myrtaceae presented simple, small, tough leaves, with low nitrogen and high potassium content. We also found relatively recent events that induced divergence of the evolutionary strategies close to the tips, called ‘local structures’, involving more recent changes in most lineages.