The genealogical process for a sample from a metapopulation, in which local populations are connected by migration and can undergo extinction and subsequent recolonization, is shown to have a relatively simple structure in the limit as the number of populations in the metapopulation approaches infinity. The result, which is an approximation to the ancestral behaviour of samples from a metapopulation with a large number of populations, is the same as that previously described for other metapopulation models, namely that the genealogical process is closely related to Kingman's unstructured coalescent. The present work considers a more general class of models that includes two kinds of extinction and recolonization, and the possibility that gamete production precedes extinction. In addition, following other recent work, this result for a metapopulation divided into many populations is shown to hold both for finite population sizes and in the usual diffusion limit, which assumes that population sizes are large. Examples illustrate when the usual diffusion limit is appropriate and when it is not. Some shortcomings and extensions of the model are considered, and the relevance of such models to understanding human history is discussed.