The mechanism of continental growth of the Altaids is currently under debate between models invoking continuous subduction-accretion or punctuated accretion by closure of multiple ocean basins. We use the Yueyashan–Xichangjing ophiolite belt of the Beishan collage (southern Altaids) to constrain the earliest oceanic crust in the southern Palaeo-Asian Ocean. Five lithotectonic units were identified from S to N: the Huaniushan block, a sedimentary passive margin, the structurally incoherent Yueyashan–Xichangjing ophiolite complex, a coherent sedimentary package and the Mazongshan island arc with granitic rocks. We present a structural analysis of the accretionary complex, which is composed of the incoherent ophiolitic melange and coherent sedimentary rocks, to work out the tectonic polarity. A new weighted mean 206Pb–238U age of 533 ± 1.7 Ma from a plagiogranite in the Yueyashan–Xichangjing ophiolite indicates that the ocean floor formed in early Cambrian time. Furthermore, we present new geochemical data to constrain the tectonic setting of the Yueyashan–Xichangjing ophiolite. The Yueyashan–Xichangjing ophiolite was emplaced as a result of northward subduction of an oceanic plate beneath the Mazongshan island arc to the north in late Ordovician to early Silurian time. Together with data from the literature, our work demonstrates that multiple overlapping periods of accretion existed in the Palaeozoic in the northern and southern Altaids. Therefore, a model of multiple accretion by closure of several ocean basins is most viable.