The diffuse deformation zone in the central Indian Ocean is the classical example of distributed deformation of the oceanic lithosphere, where shortening between the Indian and Capricorn plates is manifest as reverse faulting (5–10-km-spaced faults) and long-wavelength (100–300 km) folding. The onset of this deformation is commonly regarded as a key far-field indicator for the start of major uplift of the Himalayas and Tibet, some 4000 km further to the north, due to increased deviatoric stresses within the wider India-Asia area. There has been disagreement concerning the likely timing for the onset of deformation between plate-motion inversions and seismic reflection–based studies. In the present study, fault displacement data from seismic-reflection profiles within the central Indian Ocean demonstrate that compressional activity started much earlier than previously thought, at around 15.4–13.9 Ma. From reconstructions of fault activity histories, we show that 12% of the total reverse fault population had been activated, and 14% of the total strain accumulated, prior to a sharp increase in the deformation rate at 8.0–7.5 Ma. There is no evidence for any regional unconformity before 8.0–7.5 Ma; early shortening was accommodated by activity on single isolated fault blocks. Total strain estimates derived are more variable and complex than those predicted from plate inversion, and they do not show simple west to east increase.