Abstract Background Most genera of Fagaceae are thought to have originated in the temperate regions except for the genus Lithocarpus, the stone oaks. Lithocarpus is distributed in subtropical and tropical Asia, and its ancestral population is hypothesized to be distributed in tropical regions in Borneo and Indochina. Borneo and the nearby islands (the Greater Sunda Islands) were connected to the Malay Peninsula and Indochina prior to the Pliocene epoch and formed the former Sundaland continent. The Southeast Asian Lithocarpus, is thought to have dispersed between continental Asia and the present Sundaland. The drastic climate changes during the Pliocene and Pleistocene epochs which caused periodic sea-level changes is often used to explain the cause of its diversity. The aim of this study was to establish phylogenetic relationships by analyzing nuclear (nrDNA) and chloroplast (cpDNA) DNA in order to describe and analyze the origin, causes of diversification and historical biogeography of Lithocarpus. Results Phylogeny reconstructed through the multiple-species coalescent method with nrDNA and cpDNA revealed that the continental-Asian taxa were clustered at the basal lineages. The derived lineages of tropical Lithocarpus, with the inference of a subtropical ancestral state, imply a southward migration in the Early Miocene period with subsequent in situ diversification in the Greater Sunda Islands. The gradual decrease in temperature since the Middle Miocene period is proposed as a cause of the increase in the net diversification rate. Conclusions The historical ancestral origin of Lithocarpus has been suggested to be mainland Asia. Southward migration in the Early Miocene period with subsequent in situ diversification could explain the current diversity of stone oaks in Southeast Asia. This study also considered the multiple origins of stone oaks currently indigenous to the subtropical islands offshore and near mainland China. Our results provide phylogenetic evidence for a subtropical origin of Asian stone oaks and reveal the process of diversification and how it fits into the timeline of major geologic and climatic events rather than local, episodic, rate-shifting events.