The Atlantic rainforest has the second highest biodiversity in Brazil. It has been shrinking rapidly in area as a result of intensive deforestation, and only 7% of the original cover now remains, as isolated patches or in ecological reserves. In order to obtain new information on the distribution of the Atlantic rainforest during the Quaternary, we examined herbarium data to locate relevant populations and extracted DNA from fresh leaves from 26 populations. The present-day distribution of endemic Podocarpus populations shows that they are widely dispersed across eastern Brazil, and that the expansion of Podocarpus recorded in single Amazonian pollen records may have originated from either western or eastern populations. Genetic analysis enabled us to determine the boundaries of their regional expansion: northern and central populations of P. sellowii appeared between 5 degrees and 15 degrees S some 16,000 years ago; populations of P lambertii or sellowii have appeared between 15 degrees and 23 degrees S at different times since the last glaciation at least; and P lambertii appeared between 23 degrees and 30 degrees S during the recent expansion of Araucaria forests. The combination of botanical, pollen, and molecular analyses proved to be a rapid means of inferring distribution boundaries for sparse populations and their regional evolution within tropical ecosystems. Today the rainforest refugia we identified have become hotspots that are crucial to the survival of the Atlantic forest under unfavourable climatic conditions and, as such, offer the only possible opportunity for this type of forest to expand in the event of future climate change.