This study presents 13 new U-Pb zircon ages obtained by laser ablation–inductively coupled plasma–mass spectrometry (LA-ICP-MS) together with whole-rock geochemical, Sr-Nd isotopic and zircon Hf isotopic data for a mafic dike swarm in the southern Qiangtang area of Tibet. These data provide the basis for a new model of the late Paleozoic evolution of the Tethys. Combined with the results of previous zircon U-Pb dating, the magmatic zircon grains extracted from mafic dikes yield latest Carboniferous to Early Permian ages (317–279 Ma). The geochemistry of the southern Qiangtang mafic rocks indicates the presence of low-Ti (QLT) and high-Ti (QHT) suites. The magmas that formed the QLT suite underwent higher degrees of partial melting (>5%) and display evidence of crustal contamination, whereas the QHT suite was derived from magmas generated by low-degree (1%–5%) partial melting of a garnet-bearing mantle source, with a greater extent of fractional crystallization than the QLT suite, and no evidence of crustal contamination. We propose that the QHT and QLT suites may have been derived from magmas from different parts of a single mantle plume. The formation of the southern Qiangtang mafic dikes (latest Carboniferous to Early Permian; 317–279 Ma) may have been related to the northward drift of the Cimmerian continent from the northern Gondwana margin, which resulted in the opening of the Meso-Tethys Ocean.