Phylogenetic analyses of ancient DNA data can provide a timeline for evolutionary change even in the absence of fossils. The power to infer the evolutionary rate is, however, highly dependent on the number and age of samples, the information content of the sequence data and the demographic history of the sampled population. In this issue of Molecular Ecology, Sheng et al. (2014) analysed mitochondrial DNA sequences isolated from a combination of ancient and present-day hyaenas, including three Pleistocene samples from China. Using an evolutionary rate inferred from the ages of the ancient sequences, they recalibrated the timing of hyaena diversification and suggest a much more recent evolutionary history than was believed previously. Their results highlight the importance of accurately estimating the evolutionary rate when inferring timescales of geographical and evolutionary diversification.