The Tibetan Plateau was built through a succession of Gondwanan terranes colliding with Asia during the Mesozoic. These accretions produced a complex Paleogene topography of several predominantly east–west trending mountain ranges separated by deep valleys. Despite this piecemeal assembly and resultant complex relief, Tibet has traditionally been thought of as a coherent entity rising as one unit. This has led to the widely used phrase ‘the uplift of the Tibetan Plateau’, which is a false concept borne of simplistic modelling and confounds understanding the complex interactions between topography climate and biodiversity. Here, using the rich palaeontological record of the Tibetan region, we review what is known about the past topography of the Tibetan region using a combination of quantitative isotope and fossil palaeoaltimetric proxies, and present a new synthesis of the orography of Tibet throughout the Paleogene. We show why ‘the uplift of the Tibetan Plateau’ never occurred, and quantify a new pattern of topographic and landscape evolution that contributed to the development of today’s extraordinary Asian biodiversity.