Often, biogeography is applied only as a narrative addition to phylogenetic studies and lacks scientific rigour. However, if research questions are framed as hypotheses, biogeographical scenarios become testable. In this review, we explain some problems with narrative biogeography and show how the use of explicit hypotheses is changing understanding of how organisms came to be distributed as they are. Developing synergies between biogeography, ecology, molecular dating and palaeontology are providing novel data and hypothesis-testing opportunities. New approaches are challenging the classic ‘Gondwana’ paradigm and a more complicated history of the Southern Hemisphere is emerging, involving not only general drivers such as continental drift and niche conservatism, but also drowning and re-emergence of landmasses, biotic turnover and long-distance colonization.