Adaptive radiation (AR) is a key process in the origin of organismal diversity. However, the evolution of trait disparity in connection with ecological specialization is still poorly understood. Available models for vertebrate ARs predict that diversification occurs in the form of temporal stages driven by different selective forces. Here, we investigate the AR of cichlid fishes in East African Lake Tanganyika and use macroevolutionary model fitting to evaluate whether diversification happened in temporal stages. Six trait complexes, for which we also provide evidence of their adaptiveness, are analysed with comparative methods: body shape, pharyngeal jaw shape, gill raker traits, gut length, brain weight and body coloration. Overall, we do not find strong evidence for the ‘stages model’ of AR. However, our results suggest that trophic traits diversify earlier than traits implicated in macrohabitat adaptation and that sexual communication traits (i.e. coloration) diversify late in the radiation.