The omasum of pecoran ruminants (which is absent in tragulids) and shorter gestation periods in non-giraffid crown pecorans (as opposed to giraffids) could represent cases of key innovations that caused disparity in species diversity in extant ruminants. Literature suggests that the different ruminant groups inhabited similar niche spectra at different times, supporting the ‘increased fitness’ interpretation where a key innovation does not mainly open new niches, but allows more efficient use of existing ones. In this respect, we explored data on fossil species diversity of Afro-Eurasian ruminants from the Neogene and Quaternary. Tragulid and giraffid diversity first increased during the Early/Middle Miocene with subsequent declines, whereas bovid and cervid diversity increased distinctively. Our resulting narrative, combining digestive physiology, life history and the fossil record, thus provides an explanation for the sequence of diversity patterns in Old-World ruminants.