Parallel patterns of distribution in different lineages suggest a common cause. Explanations in terms of a single biogeographic event often imply contemporaneous diversifications. Phylogenies with absolute time scales provide the most obvious means of testing temporal components of biogeographic hypotheses but, in their absence, the sequence of diversification events and whether any could have been contemporaneous can be tested with relative date estimates. Tests using relative time scales have been largely overlooked, but because they do not require the calibration upon which absolute time scales depend, they make a large amount of existing molecular data of use to historical biogeography and may also be helpful when calibration is possible but uncertain. We illustrate the use of relative dating by testing the hypothesis that parallel, disjunct east/west distributions in three independent lineages of African caecilians have a common cause. We demonstrate that at least two biogeographic events are implied by molecular data. Relative dating analysis reveals the potential complexity of causes of parallel distributions and cautions against inferring common cause from common spatial patterns without considering the temporal dimension.