The high-altitude landscape of western Tibet is one of the most extreme environments in which humans have managed to introduce crop cultivation. To date, only sparse palaeoeconomic data have been reported from this region. The authors present archaeobotanical evidence from five sites (dating from the late first millennium BC and the early first millennium AD) located in the cold-arid landscape of western Tibet. The data indicate that barley was widely grown in this region by c. 400 BC but probably fulfilled differing roles within local ecological constraints on cultivation. Additionally, larger sites are characterised by more diverse crop assemblages than smaller sites, suggesting a role for social diversity in the development of high-altitude agriculture.