We have used molecular variation in microsatellite and mitochondrial DNA to throw light on the origins of enigmatic geographical patterns, known as ‘area effects’, in the shell polymorphisms of the land snail Cepaea nemoralis. Our aim was to assess the relative importance of recent selection and historical events in the formation of these patterns. On the Marlborough Downs in Wiltshire, England, the ‘type locality’ for area effects, the frequencies of microsatellites are significantly associated with the frequencies of alleles for shell banding. A less clear association is found between microsatellites and shell colour. Mitochondrial haplotypes show no significant relationships. Although the correlated geographical patterns could be the results of random genetic drift from an initially uniform array of populations, the magnitudes of the patterns, and of the correlations between them, seem too strong to have arisen by drift since the last glaciation. Our results suggest that invasions from refugia have been the most important factors in forming area effects.