Models for the development of species distribution in Europe typically invoke restriction in three temperate Mediterranean refugia during glaciations, from where recolonization of central and northern Europe occurred. The brown bear, Ursus arctos, is one of the taxa from which this model is derived. Sequence data generated from brown bear fossils show a complex phylogeographical history for western European populations. Long-term isolation in separate refugia is not required to explain our data when considering the palaeontological distribution of brown bears. We propose continuous gene flow across southern Europe, from which brown bear populations expanded after the last glaciation.