BACKGROUND: Understanding the demographic history of a population is critical to conservation and to our broader understanding of evolutionary processes. For many tropical large mammals, however, this aim is confounded by the absence of fossil material and by the misleading signal obtained from genetic data of recently fragmented and isolated populations. This is particularly true for the lion which as a consequence of millennia of human persecution, has large gaps in its natural distribution and several recently extinct populations. RESULTS: We sequenced mitochondrial DNA from museum-preserved individuals, including the extinct Barbary lion (Panthera leo leo) and Iranian lion (P. l. persica), as well as lions from West and Central Africa. We added these to a broader sample of lion sequences, resulting in a data set spanning the historical range of lions. Our Bayesian phylogeographical analyses provide evidence for highly supported, reciprocally monophyletic lion clades. Using a molecular clock, we estimated that recent lion lineages began to diverge in the Late Pleistocene. Expanding equatorial rainforest probably separated lions in South and East Africa from other populations. West African lions then expanded into Central Africa during periods of rainforest contraction. Lastly, we found evidence of two separate incursions into Asia from North Africa, first into India and later into the Middle East. CONCLUSIONS: We have identified deep, well-supported splits within the mitochondrial phylogeny of African lions, arguing for recognition of some regional populations as worthy of independent conservation. More morphological and nuclear DNA data are now needed to test these subdivisions.